Meet the New OMB Director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell

National Journal

There was a time when Clintonites and reporters wondered if Sylvia Mathews, as she was known by her maiden name, would run for the U.S. Senate. After all, the native West Virginian had quite a pedigree--Rhodes Scholar, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Deputy White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton.  But she chose a different post-Clinton life.  

Mathews moved to Seattle to help run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and work with Patty Stonesifer, a Microsoft veteran and former chair of the Smithsonian Institution. She took her work on everything from inner city education and eradicating the global threat of malaria to the Wal-Mart Foundation. Along the way she found a husband, Stephen Burwell, an attorney and avid outdoorsman who climbed Denali and Mount Rainier as a teenager and invited Sylvia on a 100 mile bike ride on an early date. A rower at Oxford, she was up for it. She took added his name to hers.

Considered genial and modest--she’d tell people that she “worked in government”--she’s the kind of “no drama” appointee that the president favors for his staff.

She’s got a brutal job ahead of her. The age of austerity is upon us and while the current round of sequestration is largely out of OMB’s hands--the Budget Control Act mandates the cuts, leaving little discretion to the president to devise an alternative short of amending the law. The upcoming renewal of last year’s continuing resolution will put Mathews Burwell in the middle of the action. And of course there are the long term fiscal challenges beyond this year.  Whether the genial Mathews Burwell ends up as a tough negotiator with the Hill remains to be seen. She had no shortage of dealings with a GOP Congress in the 1990s but as Deputy Chief of Staff along with John Podesta she didn’t have the traditional disciplinarian role that sometimes befalls deputy chiefs of staff, although she showed considerable political aplomb running Clinton’s commission on race that promoted a “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action.  Smart betting is that could leave Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew continuing their leading roles dealing with a contentious Congress along with Mathews Burwell.

No one doubts Mathews Burwell is up to the job. Stonesifer, who recently became head of the Martha’s Table, in Washington emailed to say of Mathews Burwell: “At Gates Sylvia was known for keeping her eye on the ultimate goal – she always reminded her team that they  were not working for the glory, or for the media, or for the grantees and not even for the Gates family. She would hold up a picture of a small girl in Africa that hung in her office who she had affectionately named “The Boss” – and...repeated, hundreds of times that we were ALL working for “The Boss”.  Now the American citizen is ‘the boss’. “

Mathews Burwell’s presence adds another female voice to the president’s top echelon, helping him deflect charges that the first African-American president has been inattentive to diversity. Burwell replaces the acting director, Jeffrey Zients, who was appointed by President Obama to be the nation’s Chief Performance Officer and who was a longtime business partner of David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media which is the parent company of National Journal.

Is there politics in Mathews Burwell’s future? That’s doubtful, say friends. But then again her mother didn’t decide to run for the mayor of her small town, Hinton W. Va. until she was 65. That leaves with the new OMB Director designate plenty of time for another act. Meanwhile, expect an easy confirmation after the contentious one for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

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