At the White House, her reputation transcends her policy bona fides. She’s known for an ability to work well with others, as well as for being the president’s first female golfing buddy. But it’s her laser-like focus and stiff spine that admirers home in on.
Barnes supported the Education Department’s decision to award large grants to only two states in its “Race to the Top” innovation competition, despite enormous political pressure to include more.
“Melody’s so nice and polite, but she’s got a backbone of steel,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
And as the White House put the final touches on the health-care law last year, Barnes stood up against especially tough political pressure that saw education reforms as a distraction.
“As health care went along, there was a shrinking opportunity to do education, and Melody played a pivotal role in making sure we kept looking for an opportunity to get education enacted,” said Phil Schiliro, a top White House official.
Now Barnes and her policy team face ever-tightening federal purse strings and are racing to find more ways to partner with the private sector.
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time speaking to CEOs and others about our educational reform agenda,” Barnes said. “They tell me that when they’re thinking about where they’re going to locate their manufacturing base, they think about the educational opportunities they’re looking at. We know they have the opportunity to base their operations in the U.S. or elsewhere.”
But while she’s already received funding for some of her initiatives and showered attention on them, it will be years before anyone knows whether she’s succeeded at helping to boost U.S. economic competitiveness. Some would prefer that the White House spend more time emphasizing policies that will lower unemployment in the short term.
Still, Barnes is staying on message.
Sandwiched between Obama’s education talk on Spanish-language television and his energy speech last week, Barnes made an appearance of her own — before the National Urban League — where her remarks focused largely on boosting educational opportunities.
“Education goes beyond fairness,” she told the civil rights group’s audience. “It is an economic necessity.”