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Washington on Burwell

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(Bloomberg) — These days, serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) is an impossible job. President Barack Obama has selected the perfect woman for the task.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has been picked as the successor to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose resignation Obama will announce today. Republicans will use her confirmation hearings as a vehicle to attack Obamacare, but she will handle it almost perfectly and win confirmation with a large number of Republican votes.

“Sylvia is one of the four or five ablest people I ever met,” said Roger Altman, a deputy Treasury secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration who is the chairman and founder of Evercore Partners Inc., an investment bank. “Between her intellect, her values and her wonderful calm, she is the best.”

Even some Republicans who strongly disagree with her on the issues share some of that assessment of her abilities.

One of the most talented public officials of the past quarter-century, she is a first-class intellect, a policy wonk and has expertise in a wide range of areas. She graduated from Harvard University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

There are a lot of Rhodes Scholars and Harvard graduates are thick on the ground. Few possess the calm charm and easy manner of the unflappable Burwell.

In her 20s, she became a top aide to Robert Rubin in the Clinton White House, and then at Treasury. A common saying of top Clinton officials in the 1990s was: “Get me a Sylvia.” Rubin and his successor as Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, had many talented subordinates, though none has earned more respect than Burwell.

“She has a keen understanding of policy and politics but she also knows how to manage and get things done in the difficult environment of Washington,” Rubin said in an e-mail this morning. “On the first day we got to Treasury, I was ready to sit down and start focusing on our immediate policy agenda but instead she arranged for me to walk through the building to meet the career staff, from division heads to telephone operators, and that created goodwill and a sense of all being in this together — as opposed to the remote secretary — that set the tone for the rest of our time there.”

She went on to serve as deputy director of the budget office and deputy chief of staff to Clinton.

When the Clinton administration ended, “She had about a hundred job offers, including one from me,” Altman says. Burwell accepted a post as a senior executive at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she contributed to helping the philanthropy become a global presence. She went on to head the Wal-Mart Foundation, another huge non-profit. She also served on several corporate boards.

Burwell came back to government to lead the OMB a year ago. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and has steadily gained the confidence of the president. She maintained decent relationships with a number of congressional Republicans as she managed the government shutdown last October.

A pragmatic liberal, her views and values were formed in her native West Virginia, where her father was a doctor and her mother a small-town mayor. She hasn’t forgotten her roots and often returns to the state. Burwell is a rarity in Washington: People are as effusive of her in their private praise as they are publicly.

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