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Why Sylvia Burwell? What Obama was thinking

In moving to install Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the new secretary of Health and Human Services, White House officials believe they have executed a masterstroke. Burwell, the thinking goes, is a highly efficient manager capable of keeping the Obamacare trains running on time. She also has a reputation of working well with Republicans—who confirmed her unanimously a year ago—and will present a much more difficult target to attack than outgoing Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Had the White House left Sebelius in the job, she would have been the subject of constant Republican attacks throughout the 2014 campaign as the symbol of everything wrong with the troubled Obamacare rollout.

Now Burwell, who comes from the Bill Clinton-Bob Rubin wing of the Democratic Party, can be associated with the positive aspects of Obamacare (the 7.1 million sign-ups for instance) and not saddled with any of the baggage of the initial rollout.

"She is just a brilliant choice," Gene Sperling, who recently left the White House and has known Burwell for years, told me last night. "She is deeply committed and smart on the health-care policy and one of the most adroit and conscientious managers I've ever met. With her you don't have to choose between getting a skilled manager versus an experienced policy person. You get both."

Other current White House officials said the president was deeply impressed with Burwell's organizational and management skills at OMB. They said her navigation of the government shutdown and ability to help bring the bipartisan budget agreement between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., together made clear to the president she could handle the complex HHS assignment.

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"She was obviously instrumental in getting Ryan-Murray through," a White House official told me. "And she was confirmed unanimously. She navigated a lengthy shutdown. She has proved to the president and everyone around here that she is a masterful manager and someone who can really run a process and dig in and figure things out. And she's very well liked on the Hill."

Of course, no matter how well liked Burwell is on the Hill, her confirmation hearings will be a huge opportunity for Republicans to make headlines bashing Obamacare. And they will not hesitate to do so. And it's far from certain that Burwell will win easy approval for the job.

Opinions on why the White House made the HHS switch now are mixed.

One former official told me that Sebelius is "exhausted" from the Obamacare wars and decided the end of the initial enrollment period was the right time to go.

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Another former official said the White House moved now out of fear that Democrats will lose control of the Senate in November (which is now the conventional wisdom) and needs to get a new secretary confirmed before that happens.

Current officials however said it's way too soon to ascribe White House moves to fear of losing the Senate. Instead, they said it would simply get harder to confirm an HHS secretary or anyone else the closer it gets to November.

Burwell, a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who spent eight years in the Clinton administration, is almost uniformly admired. The only criticism of her for HHS is that she is not a health-care specialist but instead a fiscal policy wonk.

I asked Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary and senior Obama economic advisor, about this criticism and he dismissed it. "She is a specialist at getting things done," Summers said. "I've never met a policy official with more focus on and capacity for execution. I can't imagine a stronger person to take on HHS at a moment when the key priorities must be implementation of the Affordable Care Act and refocusing on poverty in America."

Others noted that Burwell's lack of deep association with health care and the Affordable Care Act law would actually help her get confirmed because she has taken few deeply polarizing positions.

"Anybody deeply steeped in the health-care battle would have a much harder confirmation battle," Peter Orszag, a former OMB director under Obama told me. "She has the benefit of keen intelligence and knows enough to do the job without the long history of speaking out on controversial topics that could create a problem. She is basically right in the sweet spot."

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Orszag added, "She's smart enough and done enough in health care to know what needs to be done but she has not been fighting every single battle over the last 20 or 30 years."

Her battle will start soon on the Hill but the betting inside the White House is the GOP will have to swallow hard and confirm her.

—By Ben White. White is POLITICO's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet POLITICO Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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