Obama nominates Walmart Foundation head as budget chief

Sylvia Mathews Burwell is a familiar presence in D.C.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sylvia Mathews Burwell is a familiar presence in D.C.

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday nominated Walmart Foundation president Sylvia Mathews Burwell as his next budget chief, thrusting her into the center of Washington’s heated partisan budget battles.

Obama announced the selection to lead the Office of Management and Budget during a White House ceremony, noting that her appointment comes as government-wide spending cuts are going into effect that he said mean ‘‘eventually a lot of people are going to feel some pain.’’

The White House and congressional Republicans were unable to reach a deal to avert the cuts before the March 1 deadline.


If confirmed by the Senate, Burwell would bring more diversity to Obama’s second-term Cabinet following criticism that many top jobs were going to white men.

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Burwell, 47, is a Washington veteran, having served as chief of staff to former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, where Obama noted she was on a team that presided over three consecutive budget surpluses.

Her tenure also included the 1995 budget standoffs between the president and Congress that led to partial government shutdowns.

Burwell has been running the Walmart Foundation, the retailer’s philanthropic wing in Arkansas. She previously was president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, where Obama said she helped the organization ‘‘grow into a global force for good.’’

‘‘Sylvia knows her way around a budget,’’ Obama said. ‘‘But as granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up. Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth, and that is a strong growing middle class, to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.’’


Walmart president Mike Duke called Burwell a strong leader with a ‘‘clear vision for making big things happen.’’

‘‘She understands business and the role that business, government and civil society must play to build a strong economy that provides opportunity and strengthens communities across the country,’’ Duke said in a statement.

If confirmed by the Senate, Burwell would replace acting director Jeffrey Zients, who has been discussed as a contender for other top administration posts.

The introduction of Burwell as the budget nominee was greeted by strong applause, reflecting how well known she is in Washington. While in the Clinton administration, she worked closely with Jacob J. Lew, now Obama’s Treasury secretary, who recommended Burwell for the budget director’s job, which he held for both Clinton and Obama.