Our process for selecting the Person of the Year takes into account numerous criteria. First, as we are a newspaper whose primary mission is to serve the Greek-American community, our Person ideally ought to be of Greek descent. Second the Person’s should have done something meaningful in 2014 that should be an inspiration to Greek-Americans and Greeks throughout the world. Finally, the Person’s accomplishments ought to extend beyond our community and in some way affect American society as a whole.
It is for a combination of those reasons that The National Herald’s Person of the Year – 2014 is Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
To the extent that success is defined by attaining a position of power and influence, few Greek-Americans nowadays can match Burwell’s success. She is currently the highest-ranking Greek in American politics.
Appointed HHS Secretary in June, Burwell is 11th in line to the succession of the presidency. That means, if President Obama, Vice President Biden, and ten other Cabinet members were to become incapacitated, Burwell would be president. Of course, that is extremely unlikely and for any of that to occur would be an unspeakable national tragedy – but the fact that she is that close to succession far exceeds any of her Greek-American contemporaries.
Burwell’s position renders her a role model not only for Greek-Americans in general, but Greek-American women in particular, as she is the highest-ranking Greek woman in American political history.
Under normal circumstances, the HHS Secretary would not be a particularly noteworthy position, at least not among the other Cabinet posts. But in the era of the sweeping, historical, and polarizing health care reform officially called the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and commonly referred to as Obamacare, that Burwell is, in effect, that initiative’s steward, renders her position particularly prestigious.
Is Obamacare here to stay, like Social Security – or is it a law destined to be repealed, like the Volstead Act, which established prohibition? Supporters say that it is already a success, and detractors say just the opposite. Objectively, it is probably too soon to draw a definitive conclusion one way or another, and so the next couple of years are critical. And with Burwell at the HHS helm, she is playing a vital role in guiding one of America’s most transformational moments.
FACE OF BIPARISANSHIP
Perhaps equally as important as Burwell’s job is the positive image she projects. In one of the most bitterly partisan periods in American history, the U.S. Senate united behind Burwell’s nomination, confirming her overwhelmingly, 77-18. The year before, she was confirmed as Director of the Office of Management and Budget even more overwhelmingly, by a 96-0 vote.
Her appearance on Meet the Press in November reflected that her appeal to legislators, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, is not an accident. In her defense of Obamacare, she spoke in a calm, consistent tone and exhibiting a warm, exhibiting an everpresent smile.
GREEK ROOTS, PEDAGOGY
Though her name, “Sylvia Mathews Burwell” does not sound very Greek, Burwell is not merely a Greek by birthright – she is “the granddaughter of Greek immigrants” as President Obama described her – but also by deed. Along with other prominent Greek-Americans, Burwell helped to establish the education foundation Next Generation Initiative – aka Hellenext. She taught master’s classes for young leaders and participated in the Greeks Give Back national competition.
Congratulations, Secretary Burwell, and all the best wishes for continued success.