Published in Tribune, 19 December 2008
AS WAS predictable, the American left has already started moaning about Barack Obama and the choices he has made staffing his administration. The media has played along, pointing out how many establishment figures he has appointed to his cabinet – Hillary Clinton being the most obvious but by no means the only one. The cries of “sell out” have started and Obama hasn’t even had a chance to pick the new carpet for the Oval Office.
Given the media’s single-track mind, it’s not surprising that they have obsessed on one non-story (“President appoints politicians to his cabinet”) while ignoring another – the appointment to major government jobs of academic experts – which will likely have a major impact on the tone and style of his administration. Given a bit of luck, it might affect the policies, too.
Where George Bush’s administration was full of oil tycoons and businessmen, Obama’s is packed with professors – starting with the man at the top, Obama himself. His campaign made a big deal of the three years he spent as a community organiser in Chicago’s South Side. But, perhaps afraid of validating accusations of elitism from the John McCain camp, Obama rarely mentioned the 12 years he spent teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago – even though that would have nixed the constant refrain from the Republicans that he was not ready to be President.
Of course, lawyers are hardly a rarity in politics – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton all practised law before becoming President, although none of them taught it. But the details of appointments that have emerged from Obama’s transition team show a large infusion of talent from academia into all levels of government, both advisory and executive – and not just lawyers.
Among the new faces, the most impressive is Steve Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who will, Senate confirmation hearings permitting, be Obama’s Energy Secretary.
Professor Chu’s scientific credentials speak for themselves – a Nobel Prize in particle physics, important work in molecular biology and, more recently, the directorship of the Berkeley Lab in California. More than just being a brilliant scientist in his field, though, he has shown political nous and has directed the lab towards valuable research into low-carbon energy. He has also had the pragmatic common sense to involve oil companies in the lab’s work, giving them a stake in new technologies, rather than freezing them out – essential if their commercial clout is one day to support, rather than undermine, alternative fuels. It remains to be seen whether Chu is ready for the rough and tumble of national politics, but he should bring a clarity of thought to the cabinet table that has been lacking in recent years.
Other appointments of experts by Obama have been more predictably focused on experts in economics. But here, too, Obama is showing faith in scholarship and learning where his predecessors placed trust in tycoons. Lawrence Summers, who will head Obama’s National Economics Council was Treasury Secretary under Clinton – but he is also a former economics professor and served as president of Harvard University. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors is headed by another professor – UC Berkeley’s Christina Romer.
In his appointment of experts, particularly in advisory roles in economics, Obama may be trying to mirror Franklin D Roosevelt, a president he has studied in detail. FDR’s “Brain Trust” of expert advisors played a major role in developing his policies for combating the Great Depression, and looked a lot like Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors does. But the similarity ends there: Roosevelt did not have a Steve Chu; he did not rush to appoint any academics to his cabinet when he became president. FDR took the sages’ advice, but he didn’t hand them the reins of power.
So is all this going to work? We must hope so – and in any case, the incoming administration can hardly be worse than the outgoing one. But experts and academics don’t have an unblemished record at putting theory into practice and aren’t, to put things mildly, always the best people for the job. Just ask Portugal, run by professors for much of the 20th century.
In 1932, the country’s ruling junta handed the job of prime minister to António Salazar– who, among his many distinctions had been professor of economics at the prestigious University of Coimbra. Thirty-six years of repressive dictatorship and rigged elections later, when Salazar suffered a stroke, his replacement was Marcello Caetano – another professor, this time of law, and a former rector of the University of Lisbon. The dictatorship staggered on for another five painful years before he was finally overthrown. Perhaps they should have stuck to teaching.
But things are rarely that simple. When Caetano’s dictatorship finally collapsed in the Carnation Revolution, the first elected leader of the new Portuguese Republic, Mário Soares, guided his country back to democracy, into the EU and established his Socialist Party as the standard-bearer of the Portuguese left. And his previous job?
A professor at the University of Paris.
There is hope yet for Obama’s new team.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Published in Tribune, 19 December 2008
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