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.
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."
While the picks are generally winning praise, some on the left contend that legitimate criticisms of Obama's top economic advisers have been met with assertions of the advisers' brilliance, rather than full engagement on the policy questions involved.
"No doubt [Summers] is very smart, but you're not giving him the job based on his SAT scores," said economist Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. "What I look at is his track record, and his track record is not great -- he supported the policy of financial deregulation, he thought the asset bubble was just fine, he was not troubled by the stock bubble, he was not troubled by the housing bubble, and he supported the overvalued dollar."
Noting that Obama's economic advisers are mostly disciples of former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin -- he was on the Harvard board that hired Summers as university president -- Baker worries that their high-octane thinking will lack dissent. People know that "if you just go along with the conventional wisdom and it turns out to be wrong, no one pays a price," he said.
Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the liberal American Prospect magazine, said the problem with exalting credentials was demonstrated by the continued high reputation of Rubin, even though he supported the financial deregulation that is blamed for abetting the nation's economic collapse. "Rubin has fallen upwards for 10 years," Kuttner said. "There are a lot of smart economists out there. . . . It's not as if these are the only smart guys around."
The team's credentials also are drawing renewed scrutiny of the American meritocracy. Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Big Test," said Ivy League graduates like to think they earned their position, given the shift to more egalitarian admissions in the 1960s, and in many cases they undoubtedly have. But they sometimes overlook the role of family background and other social factors, he said.
"The American meritocrats . . . are deeply invested in the idea that at a certain time in the past, [Ivy League alumni] in these jobs didn't deserve them because they were aristocratic preppies, but that now they really deserve them. That's the spin from the upper meritocracy," said Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School.
Obama's Harvard classmate Bradford Berenson, a Republican lawyer in Washington, countered that Obama showed an ability to evaluate people's true ability at the law review, where he elevated conservatives without regard for personal ties or politics. "I don't think it's a species of elitism; it's a sincere appetite for meritocracy and good thinking," Berenson said. "It's where his training in the law helps you understand his decision-making practice: to hear smart people articulate their points of view and choose the best approach between them."
Historians agree that the first president to self-consciously reach for expertise was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1932 assembled a "brain trust" of Columbia professors to help him take on the Depression: Raymond Moley, a political scientist, Adolf Berle, an authority on the modern corporation, and Rex Tugwell, an agricultural economist. At first, they were the talk of Washington. But Moley broke with Roosevelt, saying the New Deal had gone too far, while Tugwell left amid criticism that his views were too socialistic.
President Bill Clinton excited academics at first, given his Rhodes scholarship, Yale law degree and mastery of policy. But he diluted his intellectual background with a regular-guy earthiness that Obama does not attempt to mimic. And while some Obama nominees started out under Clinton, the former president also filled his team with less-credentialed Arkansas associates, such as Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, Webster L. Hubbell, Vincent W. Foster Jr. and Bruce Lindsey.
Still waiting in the wings for Obama are several high-profile academics on whom he came to rely during the campaign, such as Harvard's Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning authority on genocide. But Obama's preference for people of obvious stature has also meant hiring several with whom he has had relatively few dealings, such as Timothy F. Geithner for Treasury secretary and his national security adviser, retired Gen. James L. Jones. For secretary of state, Obama picked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), his former rival, instead of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who had endorsed Obama early on.
"It's merit-based," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an early Obama supporter. "It's getting the best people and best ideas. And in the process, it's going to pinch some people's toes."
Lemann said Obama's penchant for expertise seems tempered with a respect for people who had, like Obama, left the path to academic jobs or big law firms to run for public office. But, Lemann added, it is still wise not to set overly high expectations for intellectual heavyweights in government.
"Part of the reason for the current exultation for these picks . . . is the sense that Bush, at least early on, was rebelling against the idea that meritocrats are smarter and more competent. . . . He made a point of not picking these people, and some now map the administrative incompetence in the Bush administration onto the assumption that Obama's picking these people will mean that the government will perform more competently," Lemann said. "But in this culture, most super-meritocrats are not trained to be a manager of organizations. They're trained to be consultants, analysts. . . . They haven't done things like run a budget, haven't dealt with people unlike themselves."
Douglas Baird, who hired Obama at the University of Chicago, noted that whizzes can also have too much faith in their answers. But he said Obama is confident enough in his own intellect to challenge others' conclusions. He recalled watching Obama hold his own with erudite faculty members.
"He goes into a faculty club filled with Nobel laureates, and he talks to them on equal terms -- there hasn't been anyone in the White House like that for a long time," Baird said. "So it's not as if, when he's given advice by powerful, smart people, that he'll get swayed from his core principles. And if you're confident you're going to stick to your own principles, then you might as well surround yourself with smart people rather than dumb ones."