Daniel W. Drezner

Taking aim at the Best and the Brightest

Taking aim at the Best and the Brightest

At some point this week the meme about the incoming Obama administration switched from a discussion of the pitfalls of a “Team of Rivals” to a discussion of the pitfalls of “The Best and the Brightest.”  Here’s the Washington Post‘s Alec MacGillis

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…. [S]keptics 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…. 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…. [Nicholas] 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.  

And then there’s the New York Times’ Frank Rich

The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company. The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing. In the Obama transition, our Clinton-fixated political culture has been hyperventilating mainly over the national security team, but that’s not what gives me pause. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were both wrong about the Iraq invasion, but neither of them were architects of that folly and both are far better known in recent years for consensus-building caution (at times to a fault in Clinton’s case) than arrogance. Those who fear an outbreak of Clintonian drama in the administration keep warning that Obama has hired a secretary of state he can’t fire. But why not take him at his word when he says “the buck will stop with me”? If Truman could cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then surely Obama could fire a brand-name cabinet member in the (unlikely) event she goes rogue. No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

There are a few other examples of stories like this, but I think you get the drift.  These stories are just as overblown as the “team of rivals” meme.  Halberstam’s “best and brightest” were known primarily as brilliant scholars before they joined the Kennedy administration.  While many Obama’s major appointments are smart, none of them besides Larry Summers have any extensive experience working at an Ivy League institution.  Indeed, as Lemann observed in the Post above, Obama likes people who have stepped away from the academy. The other irony is that the undercurrent of these stories contradicts the overt theme.  The undercurrent is progressive dissatisfaction with Summers, Geithner, and others who worked for Robert Rubin.  The critics’ suggestion for how to correct for this bias?  Apparently, they should hire more academics.  Rich writes, “In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were not just economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini.”  See Michael Hirsch and Josh Marshall as well.  So, really, this “best and brightest” critique is kind of an unholy alliance between conservatives grasping at straws to criticize the Obama transition and progressives who feel screwed over by the economic appointments.  [But aren’t the progressives right?  Wouldn’t Stiglitz be a smart pick for an administration position?–ed.  Um… no, because this overlooks the fact that, based on his DC experiences in the nineties, Joe Stiglitz’s managerial, bureaucratic, and political skills are all really, really bad.  Furthermore, his writings since that time suggest that the DC experience has curdled rather than improved on these skills.]