WASHINGTON — President Obama filled in more pieces of his second term leadership team today, nominating a trio of new advisers to lead the Energy Department, Environmental Protection Agency and budget office.
The nominations signal the White House's desire to get back to normal business after the president and Congress failed to avert the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that started taking 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 Obama from focusing on other second term priorities, including making nominations for top jobs and pursuing stricter gun laws and an overhaul of the nation's immigration system.
Two of Obama's new nominees will also focus on another second term priority — tackling the threat of climate change. To head that effort, Obama promoted current EPA official Gina McCarthy to lead the agency and MIT scientist Ernest Moniz to run the Energy Department.
“They're going to be making sure we're investing in American energy, that we're doing everything we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we're going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity,” Obama said of McCarthy and Moniz. “They are going to be a great team.”
The president also tapped Wal-Mart's Sylvia Mathews Burwell as his next budget chief, thrusting her into the center of Washington's heated partisan fiscal fights.
Speaking at a White House ceremony, Obama said Burwell not only knows how “to make the numbers add up” but to ignite middle class economic growth. He said Burwell and her team would face particular challenges as the so-called sequester cuts take hold, but said he was confident they would “do everything in their power to blunt the impact of these cuts on businesses and middle class families.”
Burwell is Washington veteran, having served in several posts during the Clinton administration, including deputy OMB director. She currently heads the Wal-Mart Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the retail giant, and previously served as president of the Gates Foundation's Global Development Program.
Moniz, 68, oversees MIT's Energy Initiative, a research group that focuses on innovative ways to produce power while curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he is also well-versed in the ways of Washington, having served as the Energy Department's undersecretary in the Clinton administration.
Moniz has also advised Obama on central components of the administration's energy plan, including a retooling of the country's stalled nuclear waste program, energy research and development, and unconventional gas.
In a 2009 alumni interview published on Boston College's website, Moniz noted that he learned to balance both political and scientific demands while working in the Clinton administration. “Physics sometimes looked easy compared to doing the people's business,” he said.
In nominating McCarthy to be the nation's top environmental steward, Obama is promoting a climate change champion and a 25-year veteran of environmental policy and politics. McCarthy has served under both Republicans and Democrats, and is known for a matter-of-fact approach appreciated by both businesses and environmental advocacy groups.
Among her past bosses: former Massachusetts governor and Obama's Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney, for whom she was a special adviser on climate and environmental issues.
Since coming to Washington in 2009, McCarthy has been the most prominent defender of EPA policies. As the head of the air pollution division, she has been behind many of the agency's most controversial new rules — from placing the first limits on greenhouse gases on newly built power plants to the first-ever standard for toxic mercury pollution from burning coal for electricity.
All three nominees announced today must be confirmed by the Senate.