Harvard Goes to Washington

With Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama enjoying sizable leads in many polls, Harvard’s left-leaning faculty is atwitter with speculation as to who may leave the banks of the Charles for the banks of the Potomac.

Names at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School are mentioned in hushed, off-the-record conversations, and those who may be tapped refrain from speculating too much about the possibility.

As Obama’s campaign hurtles toward the finish line, former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta is quietly laying the groundwork for an Obama administration.

The efforts have been conducted separately from the campaign, according to one Democratic insider with knowledge of the campaign’s plans: “I’m convinced no one’s talking to Obama about names, because he would give them a hard stare and tell them that this election’s not over.”

Though the Democratic presidential candidate, who has often warned his supporters against overconfidence, may not be creating a staff directory just yet, his choice of close advisors during his campaign—a posse of eminent scholars and former policymakers, many from the Clinton administration—could shed light on the makeup of an Obama administration.


Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack said he expects that Obama, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, would continue to surround himself with talented academic figures should he win the election.

“I think it would be a mistake not to consider people in the academic world,” said Vilsack, a fellow at the Institute of Politics. “With the problems and challenges the next president faces, he should find very bright individuals from all walks of life who can challenge the status quo.”

But the Illinois senator’s choice of a running mate suggests that an Obama administration may not resemble the “whiz kids” from industry and academia assembled by President John F. Kennedy ’40 so much as it would a coalition of Washington insiders.

Senator Joe Biden, the current chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, boasts the deep Washington experience that many fear Obama, a first-term senator, lacks.

Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos said he feels that Obama’s cabinet would instead reflect the “Barack Obama who picked Joe Biden”—not the Barack Obama who electrified rallying crowds by calling for change driven by “ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

“I think there will be more establishment figures than people think—a lot of familiar faces,” Castellanos said, adding that it would be a “mistake” if Obama fails to strike a balance between appointing experienced policymakers and academics.

Republican nominee John McCain, Castellanos said, might err on the side of recruiting too few academic leaders.

“McCain has more of a soldier’s mentality,” said Castellanos, who is also an IOP fellow. “He’s more comfortable surrounding himself with people who do rather than people who study,”


In the days leading up to an election, neither presidential campaigns nor prospective appointees confirm rumors about nominations—likely out of concern that the former will seem over-confident and that the latter will seem presumptuous. But in some cases, ambition is only thinly veiled by a layer of political tact.

“We’re really in the realm of pure speculation because no one wants to appear too hungry for a job, and no one in the Obama camp is in a position to promise anyone anything,” said Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82, an author and analyst for The New Yorker and CNN. “That of course counts for the McCain campaign as well.”

Toobin, a former Crimson sports editor, named Law School Dean Elena Kagan and constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein ’75 as candidates in line for high-ranking posts in the Justice Department or for an appointment to the Supreme Court.

Sunstein, who is the nation’s most-cited law professor, joined the Harvard faculty this fall. In addition to advising the Obama campaign, Sunstein is also a the senator’s close friend and former colleague from their days at the University of Chicago Law School.

Former University President Lawrence H. Summers, who served as treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, may also return to Washington if Obama is elected. Summers has had a low-profile but important role in the Obama campaign, advising the Democrat on progressive taxation and the current financial crisis.

“You don’t work as hard as he has on a campaign for Obama without usually some ambition for a job,” Toobin said, adding that many approve of Summers’ work during the Clinton years.

When asked if he is considering going back to Washington, Summers said he would only say what he says in response to all media inquiries: “No comment, no comment, no comment.”

Kagan, who was nominated by President Clinton to serve on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.—often considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court—said that she enjoyed her time working as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House.

But since Kagan took the helm at the Law School in 2003, she has launched ambitious plans to revitalize the institution, convincing her faculty to approve major revisions to the school’s curriculum while raising $476 million in its five-year capital campaign and laying the groundwork for a large physical upgrade to the campus.

“I have no plans to go back to Washington, and I’m not looking for a job,” Kagan said over a mushroom-filled omelette at Henrietta’s Table, the preferred watering hole of many Harvard administrators. “But there are a very few offers you can’t say no to,” she added.

“I don’t think such an offer will be made to me,” she wrote in an e-mail later.

Sunstein also declined to comment on the possibility of taking on a judicial appointment next year, stating only that he is “very, very happy” to be back at his alma mater.


Every election year, there is speculation that a number of Law School professors—at least those young enough to be considered serious candidates—will take jobs in Washington if a Democrat is victorious.

Though Kagan said she sometimes contemplates the possibility of half of her faculty entering (or re-entering) the political scene, she said that she does not expect to receive too many requests for leaves of absence if Obama wins the election.

And while Harvard professors may not abandon their academic posts in droves as they did when Kennedy won the presidency, many of the faculty members currently playing a role in the campaign will likely continue to advise Obama in an informal capacity.

Law professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, who taught Obama and employed him as his research assistant, said that many who are currently advising the Illinois senator would be more than willing to take part in an Obama administration.

“President Obama would have the pick of the litter,” Tribe said, “and would be able to assemble in every area—foreign policy, justice, economic matters—the most talented team that any president in memory has put together.”

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at
—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at


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