Dec 6, 2008

White House University

The Washington Post looks at who Barack Obama has chosen for top staff and adviser slots and finds him leaning heavily on Ivy Leaguers and other striving academics. The Regular American conservatives worry the egg heads will break when the going gets tough and others fear policy-making will begin to feel like analytical research:
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."
Our last president held degrees from Yale and Harvard and yet he spurned his brain for a torrid affair with his gut. Eight years later, a return to the head sounds like a good idea to me.

Still, an overreliance on academics has its own dangers. The two cures are transparency and judgment. While think Obama's success will depend on his commitment to the former, an old Obama colleague thinks the president-elect will bring the former to the White House:
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."

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