The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 16, 2013

Note to budget battlers: Don’t underestimate Burwell

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— President Obama’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget and shepherd the nation away from the fiscal cliff is an admission that he failed during his first four years of office.

It’s also a strong indication that Hillary Clinton will be running in 2016 and the prospective OMB head will be getting a Cabinet job.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Obama nominated Hinton native Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be his budget pit bull as he heads into a second term with fists up to the Republicans.

His gathering of so many Team Clinton members is a tacit acknowledgment that his own gang of insiders couldn’t cut the mustard if he had to reach back into the last and only successful Democratic administration since the 1960s to put together an economic team.

Republicans and Democrats should consider the president’s crow fully cooked and served. In fact, he’s been eating it with them all week on Capitol Hill.

But back to the business at hand. Burwell is young by Beltway standards and has plenty of aw-shucks about her, but don’t be fooled. She knows how to be a lady and a momma lion, which is a deadly combination. And she’s taken her turn around the Beltway.

She faithfully served President Clinton for eight years even after he lied to her to her face about his dalliances with intern Monica Lewinsky.

Burwell is not easily deterred and especially so when she believes she’s doing the Lord’s work. She was raised to believe that helping others is the Lord’s work and that government exists to help others.

She was my high school classmate, and while I wouldn’t be impertinent enough to consider myself part of her inner circle, we’ve stayed in touch over the years.

At her wedding reception, I wished her well and told her she should enjoy her life — that she’d earned the right. She had served Clinton at great personal cost what with getting yanked before the Senate and questioned by the FBI at every turn.

When she took the job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I wrote the obligatory story and told the Gates spokeswoman that we had gone to high school together. The woman asked me what I knew of Burwell.

“Sylvia has a lot of do-gooder tendencies,” I said. “The Gates Foundation will provide plenty of money for her to satisfy those tendencies.”

Sylvia has a small-town, middle-class sensibility about her, a perspective sorely needed in the nation’s capital. She’s also driven and dedicated. And she’s just as smart as she is genteel.

Word up to House Speaker John “Bonehead” Boehner and the obstructionists on both sides of the aisle: If you go in to play hardball with Sylvia, you better put on a cup first and an industrial strength one at that, or somebody’s gonna be comin’ out singin’ soprano and it won’t be her.

I know from personal experience how tough she is. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of her icy blue stares.

When I interviewed her in the White House, she told me she didn’t have any pets and had been told that a fish would resent her hours. God only knows why she wants to get back in the mess, especially since she has two young children.

But if there’s a way out of this, my money’s on Sylvia. Really, it is. All of our money is.

I’m praying for our country, I’m praying for Obama and I’m praying for her.

And if Hillary wins in ’16, I expect Sylvia to be the first person nominated to the Cabinet. Here’s my prediction that she’ll be expecting it, too. If I’m wrong, nobody will remember three years from now.

Well, Sylvia will. Despite her Democratic ways, she has the memory of an elephant.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2013 by Nerissa Young