Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
By Alex Rogers
April 11, 2014

President Barack Obama will announce Sylvia Mathews Burwell as his nominee to be the next Health and Human Services Secretary on Friday, replacing the embattled and resigning Kathleen Sebelius. Burwell, 48, ran the Office of Management and Budget and should be confirmed after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democrats changed filibuster rules earlier this year, requiring only a simple majority to confirm some nominees rather than the previous 60 votes (though considering how politically divisive the health care reform law is, it will surely be a heated confirmation hearing). As HHS Director, Burwell will be under serious pressure to ensure that the next open enrollment period on the health insurance exchanges goes more smoothly than the initially hobbled rollout of last year. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know about Burwell, drawn from our story when she was nominated to be OMB chief.

Fast Facts

  • A Harvard University graduate (’87) and a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Burwell consulted for McKinsey & Company (1990-1992) until she found work in the public sector.
  • After working on the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign in Arkansas, Burwell became Staff Director for the newly created National Economic Council under Robert Rubin. In 1995, Rubin was confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury, and Burwell was chosen as his Chief of Staff. When President Clinton asked Erskine Bowles to be his Chief of Staff in 1997, Burwell moved over to become Bowles’ deputy, and later served under recently sworn-in Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
  • After the Clinton years, Burwell moved on to philanthropy, working in the Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation. She also serves on the board of directors for MetLife and the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • The Senate confirmed Burwell 96 to 0 for OMB Director in 2013.
  • Burwell is from Hinton, W.V., and married to attorney and outdoorsman Stephen Burwell.

Quotes About Burwell:

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to the New York Times:

“The president wants to make sure we have a proven manager and relentless implementer in the job over there, which is why he is going to nominate Sylvia.”

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Twitter:

Sylvia Burwell is an excellent choice to be the next Secretary

Former Sen. Erskine Bowles, to Bloomberg News last year:

(She is) the single most competent person I’ve ever worked with.

Patty Stonesifer, a Microsoft veteran to National Journal last year:

At (the) Gates (Foundation), 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.’

Quotes By Burwell:

On why she left government after eight years:

I was ready to move on, in terms of just the sheer physical ability to go at that speed. I made a rule in my last year, unless it was an extraordinary circumstance that I would try to leave by 9 or 9:30. And when I was Deputy Chief of Staff, our first meeting was at 7:15. It’s weekends as well. It is a very rare occasion you would have a weekend off. (Seattle Times, 2007)

On if she fears failure:

Yes, and I think that’s often a good motivator. Healthy fear. You don’t want to be deer in the headlights, but it is healthy to think about the responsibility that one has been given. Usually what that does is make you focus a little more and question yourself a little more deeply. (Seattle Times, 2007)


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