Barack Obama will soon announce two more appointments to his second-term team — neither of them Cabinet-level appointments, but both significant in addressing Obama’s second-term agenda, and perceived diversity deficiencies. First, the White House floated last night the name of the new director of the Office of Management and Budget, who will be the point person on Capitol Hill for the upcoming budget fights. Obama has chosen Wal-Mart executive Sylvia Matthews Burwell to lead that fight:
The 47-year-old Burwell is a Washington veteran, having served as OMB’s deputy director in the Clinton administration and chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. She currently runs the Walmart Foundation, the retail giant’s philanthropic wing, and previously served as president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program.
“Burwell’s deep knowledge of budget and economic issues along with her record of fighting for working Americans make her the perfect choice to lead the OMB at this important time,” a White House official told CBS News.
Burwell’s nomination signals that the White House is trying to get back to normal business after the president and Congress failed to avert $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that took effect Friday. While the president has warned of dire consequences for the economy as a result of the cuts, the White House does not want the standoff with Congress to keep the president from focusing on other second-term priorities, including filling out his Cabinet and pursuing stricter gun laws and an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
Obama made quick work of filling key national security openings in his administration, but has been slower to makes appointments for other Cabinet openings, including the OMB post. Vacancies also remain at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce and Energy Departments, and the U.S. trade representative.
The selection of a Wal-Mart executive, even one that spent her time running the charitable effort of the retailer, may ruffle a few feathers in Obama’s base. Wal-Mart is a villain in their melodramas, an exploiter of the poor and working class. Burwell’s appointment will lift the public profile of their philanthropy, at least momentarily, and will lend further legitimacy to the overall corporation at a time when Obama is pushing a minimum-wage hike, in a bit of a mixed message. However, the selection also gives Obama some desperately-needed private-sector credibility within his administration, and it addresses a certain gender gap that appeared in Cabinet-level appointments in the second term.
The promotion of Gina McCarthy to succeed Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator also accomplishes both tasks, albeit a bit more subtly in the case of the private sector. McCarthy pushed the EPA’s regulatory adventurism, but built better ties to private industry than Jackson managed to do, according to the Washington Post’s Janet Eilperin:
On Monday, President Obama will nominate Gina McCarthy, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency’s air and radiation office, as the agency’s next administrator, and MIT professor Ernest Moniz as energy secretary, according to a White House official.
McCarthy helped usher through many of the EPA’s most contentious rules during Obama’s first term, including regulations curbing mercury and soot emissions from power plants. But she has also cultivated a strong working relationship with members of the business community, dampening much of the opposition her selection might otherwise have encountered. …
In March 2009, public health advocates S. William Becker and Frank O’Donnell were walking the halls of the EPA when they spotted McCarthy poring over briefing books. She was preparing for her Senate confirmation hearing as head of the agency’s air and radiation office, and she was intent on defusing any controversy surrounding global warming.
“I know greenhouse gases are important, but I’m committed to strengthening public health protections,” she told them.
It was an early indication of how the politically savvy McCarthy was prepared to get her way in Washington. A veteran of Republican administrations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, she has devoted much of the past four years to shepherding through air regulations that have protected public health — but that also have helped shutter power plants emitting greenhouse gases linked to climate change.
Interestingly, the only Cabinet-level appointment among the three is Moniz at Energy, replacing Stephen Chu as Secretary. Moniz worked in the Clinton administration and comes to this appointment after running MIT’s Energy Initiative, which gives him solid credentials for his new assignment. None of the three are likely to run into major problems in confirmation hearings, although McCarthy will get lots of questions about the EPA’s runaway regulatory push, especially from Senator Jim Inhofe.
It’s interesting, though, that his appointment seems to be reported as almost an afterthought to McCarthy’s in the Post’s article despite the fact that Moniz will take a Cabinet position while McCarthy won’t. It seems as though the administration wanted to bookend the appointment of another male to the Cabinet with the announcement of two women into important but non-Cabinet roles. They may still feel a bit bruised over the avalanche of criticism about the all-male national-security team Obama put in place, especially when Michelle Flournoy was available and arguably much more qualified at Defense.