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 E. Rubin. She got caught.
Erskine Bowles, then Clinton’s chief of staff, stopped the meeting. He then announced to the president that he “broke the code” on Burwell, then known by her maiden name of Mathews.
“What code are you talking about Erskine?’” the president asked, according to Bowles.
“I just figured out that if I can get Sylvia Mathews to come be our deputy chief of staff and sit next to me and pass me notes, everybody in Washington is going to think I’m as smart as Bob Rubin,” Bowles said. “She accepted and that day my IQ went up about 100 points.”
Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced that he wants Burwell, 47, back in the White House. He’s nominating her as his next Office of Management and Budget director, filling a position that had been held by acting director Jeffrey Zients and before that by Jacob J. Lew, now the 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 at the White House. “So Sylvia knows her way around a budget.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Burwell will return to government after more than a decade at philanthropic organizations, first at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and then as the president for the past year of the Wal-Mart Foundation.
Obama also nominated scientist Ernest Moniz as head of the Energy Department, and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, where she’s been an assistant administrator.
Having spent years giving away money to projects that included lowering malaria incubation and reducing the cost of HIV drugs, Burwell will be managing federal accounts that have been operating under a series of stopgap spending measures, the latest of which expires March 27. She’ll also be dealing with the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in on March 1.
Repeated confrontations between the White House and Congress over spending and debt have delayed the president’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year until at least mid-March.
Another part of her job will be engaging with congressional Republicans who campaigned on shrinking the size of the federal government, with cuts to food stamps, federal workers’ benefits and other programs.
From Bowles’s office, Burwell went on to become deputy director of the OMB during Clinton’s final two years in office, giving her veteran status in showdowns with Congress.
“It’s very useful to have worked in the department,” said Alice Rivlin, a former OMB director for Clinton and the only previous woman in that job. “It’s a steep learning curve.”
In 1983, Burwell, the daughter of an optometrist, left her native Hinton, West Virginia, population 3,769, according to the 1980 census.
She graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in government and then received a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford in the U.K., where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
She’s well known within the Obama administration.
At Oxford, she overlapped with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who was also studying on a Rhodes scholarship, and Michael Froman, Obama’s adviser on international economics, who was there as a Fulbright scholar.
From 1990 to 1992, Mathews was an associate at McKinsey & Co. She worked for Clinton’s presidential transition team in Little Rock, Arkansas, after he was elected in 1992 and helped Rubin set up the newly created National Economic Council in 1993.
“She was a young star,” said Rivlin. “We’ve all aged.”
When Rubin became Treasury Secretary in 1995, Burwell moved with him, as his chief of staff. Working with Rubin “she became an extremely skilled negotiator,” said John Podesta, another former Clinton chief of staff.
“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,” Podesta said.
After Bowles persuaded her to leave Rubin’s team and serve as his deputy, her next stop was OMB. There she served under Lew, who later also worked for Obama as head of OMB, then chief of staff and now as Treasury secretary.
When Clinton’s term ended, she took a few weeks off, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and then joined the Gates Foundation, first as an executive vice president. She married in 2007 and is now the mother of two small children.
“Sylvia is a strong leader who both masters the details and has a clear vision for making big things happen,” Mike Duke, president and chief executive officer of Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said in a statement on the company website. “She understands business and the role that business, government and civil society must play to build a strong economy.”
Bowles calls her “the single most competent person I’ve ever worked with.”
“Lots of people can do strategy, others execution of that Strategy,” he said. “Sylvia can and will do both.”