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Academic Elites Fill Obama's Roster

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Barack Obama's chief economic adviser was one of the youngest people to be tenured at Harvard and later became its president. His budget director went to Princeton and the London School of Economics, his choice for ambassador to the United Nations was a Rhodes scholar, and his White House counsel hit the trifecta: Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law.

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All told, of Obama's top 35 appointments so far, 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago or one of the top British universities. For the other slots, the president-elect made do with graduates of Georgetown and the Universities of Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina.

While Obama's picks have been lauded for their ethnic and ideological mix, they lack diversity in one regard: They are almost exclusively products of the nation's elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government. Their erudition has already begun to set a new tone in the capital, cheering Obama's supporters and serving as a clarion call to other academics. Yale law professor Dan Kahan said several of his colleagues are for the first time considering leaving their perches for Washington.

"You know how Obama always said, 'This is our moment; this is our time?' " Kahan said. "Well, academics and smart people think, 'Hey, when he says this is our time, he's talking about us.' "

But skeptics say Obama's predilection for big thinkers with dazzling résumés carries risks, noting, for one, that several of President John F. Kennedy's "best and brightest" led the country into the Vietnam War. Obama is to be credited, skeptics say, for bringing with him so few political acquaintances from Illinois. But, they say, his team reflects its own brand of insularity, drawing on the world that Obama entered as an undergraduate at Columbia and in which he later rose to eminence as president of the Harvard Law Review and as a law professor at the University of Chicago.

His inner circle is rife with Harvard Law classmates: Christopher Lu, who will be his Cabinet liaison; Cassandra Butts, who was a campaign policy adviser and is general counsel for the transition; and other transition officials including Julius Genachowski, his campaign's top technology adviser, Michael Froman, a managing director at Citigroup, and Thomas Perrelli, a Washington lawyer.

The Ivy-laced network taking hold in Washington is drawing scorn from many conservatives, who have in recent decades decried the leftward drift of academia and cast themselves as defenders of regular Americans against highbrow snobbery. Joseph Epstein wrote in the latest Weekly Standard -- before noting that former president Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College -- that "some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools . . . since these institutions serve as the grandest receptacles in the land for our good students: those clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead."

The libertarian University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, who is not related to Joseph Epstein, worries that the team's exceptionalism could lead to overly complex policies. "They are really smart people, but they will never take an obvious solution if they can think of an ingenious one. They're all too clever by half," he said. "These degrees confer knowledge but not judgment. Their heads are on grander themes . . . and they'll trip on obstacles on the ground."

All agree that the picks reveal something about Obama, suggesting he will make decisions much as he did in the U.S. Senate -- by bringing as many smart people into the room as possible and hearing them out. This contrasts with the style of President Bush, who played down his own Ivy League credentials and played up his mangled elocutions and the gentleman's C's he received at Yale and Harvard. While Bush brought in a few academics, such as former Stanford provost Condoleezza Rice, he relied heavily on his Texas associates and business executives outside the Ivy League echelons he encountered in his schooling.

Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul H. O'Neill, went to Fresno State, Vice President Cheney dropped out of Yale before graduating from the University of Wyoming, and strategist Karl Rove never finished college. Dozens of administration members hail from Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson. And many of Bush's hires were friends from Texas, such as former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

Obama, who wrote a literary memoir at age 33, represents the opposite approach. In a country where politicians often wrap their learning in folksy charm to avoid seeming elitist, his candidacy represented a forthright assertion of intellectual prowess, as he turned his oratory and cerebral demeanor into campaign assets.

He has been as direct in citing his nominees' braininess. Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president whom Obama selected as his top economic adviser, is a "thought leader" and "one of the great economic minds of our time," Obama said. He called the director of his new Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Austan Goolsbee, "one of America's most promising economic minds."


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