Sylvia Mathews Burwell at a Senate hearing in April 2013 Credit: Sen. Jay Rockefeller's office/Wikimedia Commons
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, former Gates Foundation official and Seattle resident, was named Friday by President Obama as his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, replacing the departing Kathleen Sibelius. HHS has been a trouble spot for the president, especially since the administratively challenged rollout of Obamacare.
Mathews Burwell, after several years of service at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, left to become president of the WalMart Foundation in Arkansas. She took the Arkansas job, in part, because it was closer to her family in West Virginia. But, last year, she met what she saw as a higher obligation to public service by accepting an appointment as Director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House. Her husband Steve Burwell, a former Seattle attorney, and their two children made the move as well.
President Obama made a similar appointment recently by naming John Koskinen as director of the Internal Revenue Service, a vital agency under fire for alleged abuses of public trust.
Both the Mathews Burwell and Koskinen appointments are encouraging. Both are competent. But both also have high integrity and are not blinded by political ambition or captive of go-along, get-along mentalities.
Mathews Burwell succeeded an OMB director, present Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who was a highly visible, constantly spinning political operative. She kept a low profile, stayed out of public combat and restored OMB's prior reputation as an honest watchdog of government spending and priorities. She also gained respect among congressional Republicans by entering into good-faith negotiations with them on taxing/spending issues.
Koskinen, whom I first knew when he was chief of staff to Sen. Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut, is a man who had succeeded greatly in business and finance and also gained a reputation for philanthropy. Yet he, like Mathews Burwell, came back to public service not out of personal ambition but because he believed it a high calling.
I would trust either Mathews Burwell or Koskinen to do the right thing in any situation. Both are lifelong Democrats but public servants first.
Former President Jimmy Carter recently gained attention by blasting President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for their alleged lack of commitment to a Middle East peace process and, at the same time, commending Secretary of State John Kerry for his often frustrating efforts to reinvigorate it.
There, too, motivations count. Kerry, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Democratic presidential nominee, regards his present job as the capstone of his career. He is not looking ahead to the next political opportunity or worrying about risking personal failure. Clinton, by contrast, is the frontrunner for her party's 2016 presidential nomination and, consciously or otherwise, did not undertake high-risk, possible kamikaze initiatives as Secretary, such as Israeli-Palestinian peace. Her highest-risk initiative — the U.S. military intervention in Libya, over the public opposition of then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates — was an exception, which did not turn out well.
Looking at the present Obama team, I am encouraged by the presence of persons such as Mathews Burwell, Koskinen and Kerry in senior positions. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a longtime Chicago associate of the president's, also is a person who puts his department's public mission above politics. I am not encouraged, by contrast, by the continuing presence of Attorney General Eric Holder, a longtime political fixer, and Treasury Secretary Lew, more practiced at partisan pointmaking than finance.
The identity of key appointees truly does make a difference in the quality of our governance.
I observed that, while serving in government, during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Those administrations were populated by a remarkable series of talented leaders in domestic policy. They initiated and saw to success such landmark programs as Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, federal aid to education, a war on poverty, and pro-growth, pro-investment Keynesian economic policies.
On the foreign policy/national security side, however, the so-called "best and brightest" appointed by JFK, and kept on by LBJ, proved disastrous. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisors McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow urged initiation and expansion of a misbegotten Vietnam War, a Bay of Pigs intervention and several questionable crises with the Soviet Union. The domestic team members were the good cops, the foreign-policy team the bad ones. We all paid the price for the latter.
The syndrome was repeated in the early George W. Bush administration when Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their acolytes convinced Bush that war with Iraq was necessary to stop Saddam Hussein from using what proved to be nonexistent nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and to plant vital democratic seeds in the Middle East. Just as the JFK/LBJ team, they were highly intelligent but ultimately stupid.
Mathews Burwell and Koskinen are good news. I trust both to run their now-troubled agencies with integrity and professionalism. They come to their jobs late in the administration, but better late than never.