President Barack Obama on Friday announced that Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office and Management and Budget, would be his nominee to replace the embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The announcement comes seven months before the midterm elections.
Burwell, who is well-versed with issues related to Obamacare, is "a proven manager who's demonstrated her ability to field great teams, forge strong relationships, and deliver excellent results at the highest levels, and she's done it both in the public and private sector," Obama said in the White House's Rose Garden Friday.
"She brings the values of caring about your neighbor and ordinary folks to some of the biggest and most complex challenges of her time," the president said.
Sebelius, who the White House defended all through the healthcare.gov fiasco leading to a dip in Obama's popularity ratings, resigned Thursday.
As budget director, Burwell knows about Obama's signature healthcare law and also the president's concerns about the problems the Affordable Care Act has posed, a senior U.S. official told Reuters. She would have a direct line to the president in her new position, the source added.
Sebelius was expected to resign after the November elections, but Obama has had to deal with increasing criticism over the healthcare law.
While Republicans are likely to remain at the helm of the House of Representatives, what's crucial for Obama is to prevent the GOP from winning control of the Senate as well; the president believes a new face of Obamacare will help.
Burwell played a key role in negotiations last summer with Senate Republicans who were seeking a grand bargain with the Obama administration to raise taxes and cut back spending on health and retirement programs. Despite the failure of the talks, Burwell was praised by Republicans for her non-threatening approach.
Burwell also helped manage the first shutdown of the federal government in 17 years. "I don't actually think it will lead to decreased productivity," she told The Washington Post on Oct. 19. "What I think instead it will lead to are issues with regard to maintaining high-potential people in the federal workforce and our ability to attract the greatest talent."
However, some Republicans criticized Obama after Friday's announcement, suggesting that main problems are in the policy itself.
"The president's signature domestic policy achievement is an unmitigated disaster," Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah, said in a statement. "This deeply flawed law has hurt millions of hard-working American families, job creators, and seniors in the form of rising premiums, higher taxes, and fewer choices."
Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama also released a statement saying, "I am concerned that director Burwell may have been chosen because the president believed her to be another political loyalist who would toe the party line."
Sessions is member of the Senate Budget Committee. "Ms. Burwell has a comparatively thin resume for the demands now placed on this position – she has never run anything on the scale of HHS – and, during her short stint as budget director, she did more to obscure the nation's poor financial state than to illuminate it."