In a 1997 Oval Office meeting with President Bill Clinton, Sylvia Mathews Burwell tried to discreetly pass a note to her boss, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Erskine Bowles, then Clinton’s chief of staff, caught her and stopped the meeting. If only he could persuade Burwell to be his deputy and pass him notes at meetings, he told Clinton, “everybody in Washington is going to think I’m as smart as Bob Rubin.” She took the job, Bowles recalls, “and that day my IQ went up about 100 points.”
On March 4, President Obama announced he wants Burwell back in the White House. He plans to nominate her as his next director of the Office of Management and Budget, filling a position currently held by acting director Jeffrey Zients and, before that, by Jacob Lew, now Treasury secretary. In the 1990s, Burwell was “part of a team that presided over three budget surpluses in a row,” Obama said in introducing her. If the Senate confirms her, Burwell will return to government after more than a decade at philanthropic organizations—she was president of the global development program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was involved in efforts to fight malaria and lower the cost of HIV drugs, and for the past year was president of the Walmart Foundation (WMT).
Having spent years giving away vast sums of other people’s money, Burwell must now find ways to save it. As Obama’s budget chief, she’ll be in the middle of Washington’s ongoing fiscal melodrama, including confrontations between the White House and Congress over spending and debt, and the stalemate over automatic cuts that took effect on March 1.
She’s been there before. After working for Bowles, Burwell was deputy director of OMB during Clinton’s final two years in office. “It’s very useful to have worked in the department,” says Alice Rivlin, a former OMB director under Clinton and the only other woman to hold the job. “It’s a steep learning curve.” (Burwell declined an interview request.)
Back then, Burwell haggled with the GOP over spending and taxes. Republicans aren’t expected to block her confirmation. “I don’t think she carries a lot of baggage,” says former Republican Senator John Sununu, who dealt with her during the Clinton years. “The question on most senators’ minds will be whether she has the clout to negotiate the tough spending deals ahead.”
The daughter of an optometrist, Burwell left her hometown of Hinton, W.Va., in 1983 for Harvard University, where she graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in government. She received a second bachelor’s in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford, where she was a Rhodes scholar. There, Burwell overlapped with another Rhodes scholar, Susan Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Fulbright scholar Michael Froman, Obama’s adviser on international economics.
After two years as an associate at consulting firm McKinsey, Burwell joined Clinton’s economic team, helping Rubin start the National Economic Council, a White House office that gives policy advice to the president. When Rubin became Treasury secretary in 1995, he hired her as his chief of staff.
In Washington, everyone is overpraised on their way in the door (and overtrashed on the way out), and the accolades Democrats are heaping on Burwell won’t be easy to live up to. During her previous stint in government, “she became an extremely skilled negotiator,” says former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta. “Everyone who works with her really admires her—not only her intelligence and depth of her knowledge on federal budget matters but also her organizational talents.” “She was a young star,” says Rivlin. Her ex-boss Bowles calls her “the single most competent person I’ve ever worked with.” No pressure.