Obama Taps Burwell of Wal-Mart Charity for Budget Office

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, is being tapped by President Barack Obama to head the White House budget office.

Burwell’s appointment will be announced this morning by the president, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity because the choice hasn’t been made public.

“Sylvia is a strong leader who both masters the details and has a clear vision for making big things happen,” said Mike Duke, president and chief executive officer of Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in an e-mailed statement. “She understands business and the role that business, government and civil society must play to build a strong economy.”

Burwell was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration and also served as chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during a time that included the 1995 budget standoffs that led to partial government shutdowns.

She would replace acting director Jeffrey Zients, who has been running the budget office on an interim basis since January 2012 when then-director Jack Lew, now Treasury secretary, stepped down to become White House chief of staff.

Burwell, born in 1965 in Hinton, West Virginia, is the daughter of an optometrist. She graduated from Harvard University cum laude in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in government and earned a second bachelor’s in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

Administration Connections

At Oxford, she overlapped with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Michael Froman, who is Obama’s adviser on international economics.

From 1990 to 1992, Mathews was an associate at McKinsey & Co. She worked for Clinton’s presidential transition team in Little Rock after the 1992 election and later helped Rubin set up the National Economic Council in 1993.

“She was a young star,” said Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

When Rubin became Treasury secretary in 1995, Burwell “became an extremely skilled negotiator,” said John Podesta, another former Clinton chief of staff.

Burwell was named executive vice president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, rising to chief operating officer on Aug. 1, 2002, according to a company press release.

In January 2012 she was named president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, which gave $959 million in cash and in-kind contributions worldwide in 2011, according to its website.

Pay Cut

If confirmed by the Senate, Burwell would be taking a pay cut to $196,000. In 2011, her last year at the Gates foundation, she earned $661,000, according to tax documents. She also received $259,000 as a board director at Metlife Inc., bringing her total compensation to more than $920,000. She will have to resign from Metlife’s board, which she joined in 2004.

Burwell would oversee an annual budget of $3.8 trillion a year, about one-fourth of the U.S. economy. The Office of Management and Budget is responsible for preparing the president’s annual budget.

One of the more immediate challenges she will face will be managing more than $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that took effect on March 1.

More showdowns with Congress will ensue from the fiscal 2014 budget to be proposed by Obama, in which he’ll outline spending blueprints.

Past budget directors such as Peter Orszag and Lew played high-profile roles in sparring with Congress over spending priorities, budget deficits and government stimulus programs.