Not So Elite After All

By Paul C. Light
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, December 12, 2008; 12:00 AM

Even as Washington celebrates the credentials and smarts of President-elect Barack Obama's early picks, concerns are growing that his cabinet and White House staff will tilt heavily toward elitism. How can the president's appointees understand the nation's economic pain when they grew up in privilege and studied in the Ivy League?

There is nothing wrong with being smart, or so the worries go. However, smart people who took their undergraduate and/or graduate degrees from prestigious universities such as Chicago, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford and Yale are allegedly more elitist. In turn, smart people from large state universities such as California, Berkeley, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, North Carolina State, SUNY, Geneseo, and Texas, or small liberal arts colleges such as Colby, Mt. Holyoke, Occidental (where Obama spent his freshman and sophomore years), Sarah Lawrence, and Wheaton are allegedly more populist.

Graduates of all of these Universities and colleges can be found in the White House.

Still, statistics about Obama's elitism abound. As the Washington Post's Alec MacGillis reported last weekend, 22 of Obama's top 35 cabinet, transition and White House appointees come from the best of the best. "You know how Obama always said, 'This is our moment; this is our time?" said a rather self-important Yale Law professor. "Well, academics and smart people think, 'Hey, when he says this is our time, he's talking about us.'"

However, analysis by New York University in cooperation with the Washington Post suggests that the tilt toward elitism may already be shifting toward populists in Obama's White House staff, which is almost complete. To the extent that trends in the White House staff predict future choices for the cabinet and subcabinet, the trend will move away from prestigious credentials toward less venerated degrees, from older appointees to younger, and from juris doctorates to master's degrees.

Timing is a first dividing line between the 11 staffers selected in the first two weeks following the election and the 23 selected in the next two weeks.

  • Seventy-three percent of Obama's early arrivals have prestigious degrees, compared with just 39 percent of the later arrivals.
  • Seventy-three percent of the early arrivals are Obama's age, 47, or older, compared with just 23 percent of the later arrivals.
  • Just 9 percent of the early arrivals were undergraduates at public colleges and universities, compared to 35 percent of the later arrivals.
  • Eighty-two percent of the early arrivals have advanced degrees, of which 78 percent are lawyers, while 65 percent of the later arrivals have advanced degrees, of which just 33 percent are lawyers.

Age is a second, even more significant dividing line.

  • Eighty percent of the older staffers have prestige degrees, compared with just 29 percent of the younger staffers.
  • Of the 25 percent of all staffers who went to a public university for undergrad, 11 percent were older, 89 were younger..
  • Eighty-seven percent of the older staffers have advanced degrees, of which 64 percent are lawyers, compared to 67 percent of the younger staffers, of which just 24 percent are lawyers.
  • Forty percent of the older staffers have campaign or nonprofit experience, compared with 86 percent of the younger staffers.

Paul C. Light, 56, has his bachelor's degree from Macalester College and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company