In smart people we trust: Obama's intellectuals and how they can change the world

    They have descended from their ivory towers, books in hand and CVs in tow. They have spent years contributing to journals and debating their colleagues. They have written profound books and have earned innumerable degrees. They are ready to bring brains to Washington, to elevate political discussion and advocate for the conclusions to their academic articles. Harold Koh, Samantha Power, Cass Sunstein and John Holdren are ready to become the Obama administration’s quartet of star academics.

    While the Bush team valued loyalty and ‘integrity,’ Obama’s approach is more measured and deliberate. Bush looked to people he could trust and agreed with. He nominated his personal attorney and close friend to the Supreme Court despite her relatively sparse qualifications. The rhetoric of the second Bush administration reflected the team’s composition. Problems were simplified into good versus evil. Policy debates devolved quickly into slogans that captured the whims of the median voter. Bush’s team relied disproportionately on gut feelings and insufficiently on deliberation and expert analysis.

    Obama, by contrast, studied Constitutional law, reads philosophy and has enviable language skills. During the campaign, adoring commentators wondered whether his rhetoric was too advanced. Others gasped as he began to speak to Americans as adults. Now that he has taken the oath, many consider him a cerebral president, an excellent listener who understands the importance of scholarship and intellect. His Cabinet, however, is not particularly scholarly.

    A majority of his picks are political operatives; leadership positions within the bureaucracy are sprinkled with former governors (Sebelius, Vilsack and Napolitano), former Senators (Clinton, Biden and Salazar) and members of Congress (Lahood, Solis). Steven Chu, the newly-appointed Secretary of Energy and a Nobel laureate, is the only noticeable exception. The Cabinet clearly knows how to navigate politics in Washington. Their political skills are such that they can effectively push reforms through Congress and negotiate with disparate interests. Obama’s team seems to be pragmatic and gritty. At first glance, they reflect the strategy of a Chicago politician more than a former professor.

    Then there is the quartet. These four intellectuals have the power and talent to initiate remarkable reforms in how the United States approaches human rights, international law, government regulation and technology policy. Though they are not in classically powerful positions, the ambiguity of their roles and their proximity to the President allow each to assert new conceptions of how to address chronic political questions. In short, beware of the intellectuals.

    Here are brief profiles of the quartet and the change that they can bring about.

    Harold Koh

    Obama announced that Koh will serve as the legal adviser to the Department of State, the top lawyer charged with directing American conduct vis-a-vis international law and diplomacy. Koh is heralded as a leading scholar on international law. He has written about the nexus between law, human rights and democratic change, deploying philosophical principles to confront big theoretical questions. He has also examined the balance of powers, chastising the rise of executive power in national security affairs after the Vietnam War. In his award-winning book, The National Security Constitution, Koh argues for presidential powers, in dealing with international questions, that are moderated by oversight from Congress and the courts. Koh has most recently been labeled a ‘transnationalist.’ He seems to favor a constructive engagement with international legal regimes and the adoption of new international norms through diplomacy.

    Koh’s past positions have provoked conservatives to label him dangerous and lead an on-line push to block his nomination. Some accused him of supporting the application of Shariah law in America. Others claimed that he would subjugate the US Constitution to international law. Koh’s nomination has passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is now pending before the Senate. Despite the controversy and delay, Koh will likely be confirmed.

    Once in office, Koh will become the first truly international lawyer representing the United States. He will embrace the principles of international law with a full understanding of how treaties and foreign laws have influenced domestic legal decision-making. Koh’s extensive work on the historical role of international law, his opponents claim, is merely a front for his plan to surrender U.S. law to a larger international order. Instead, Koh will likely work to soften the coarse approach of U.S. foreign policy toward international law.

    Since international law undoubtedly matters (particularly for the future of human rights, conflict and economic order), it is best to have an advocate who can work to balance domestic law with foreign policy objectives and principles of collegiality found in international law. Koh can have three profound effects on the future of U.S. foreign policy and constitutional law.

    First, he can advocate for a foreign policy that is open and consistent with human rights conventions. The United States’ deviations from internationally-recognized human rights law are appalling and have provoked dictators worldwide to use the U.S. to legitimate their own actions. America’s abuses and their consequences are regressive.

    Second, he can push for the U.S. to begin to provide material support for the International Criminal Court and later sign the Rome Statute, which would subject American citizens to the jurisdiction of the ICC. Not only would signing the Rome Statute be a smart foreign policy decision, it would also increase the legitimacy of the ICC. While there are concerns that the ICC would bring frivolous prosecution against U.S. military or political officials, these claims are largely unfounded. The ICC takes up only the most serious cases of crimes against humanity and only prosecutes those when domestic courts are not able. Thus, the U.S. would support the court in without much risk.

    Third, he can introduce a nuanced understanding of international law into the public discussion. He can begin to explain that international law has influenced domestic law and politics for decades and will continue to play a prominent role. He can assure Americans that international law will not impinge upon their privacy or hijack their freedoms. Instead, it will allow the United States to practice a more fluid foreign policy and advance a more stable set of international norms to govern the future of the world.

    Samantha Power

    Dr. Power (quite possibly the coolest title a government official could have) is a student of conflict. To some, Power is the portrait of why intellectuals should stay away from politics. Outspoken and brash, she has made controversial statements on engaging with Iran, labeled Hilary Clinton a “monster” and made reference to herself as the “genocide chick.”

    After graduating from Yale and Harvard Law, she began reporting from war zones, turning the world’s attention to human rights abuses across the world. Her writing continued to capture the world’s attention when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her writing on genocide. A professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she is a pop thinker on the international relations of human rights. Obama has appointed her to the National Security Council as the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs.

    While conservatives and others may enjoy loathing her, Dr. Power has the chance to carve out an entirely new approach to international human rights. She needs to re-frame human rights advocacy and inaugurate a new type of activist: the bleeding-heart intellectual. As a top official with the National Security Council, Power will likely seek to prioritize the American response to human rights abuses and the regimes that allow them to persist.

    Allied with Harold Koh and others, Power will advance a foreign policy agenda that understands the value of human rights in international relations. While it does not take an intellectual to realize that respect for human rights is both a moral and political good, confronting abuses in international politics is delicate. The history of human rights law, abuses and responses demonstrates that certain courses of action are more effective than others. Power, with a clear understanding of this history and the current international dynamics, is well-equipped to rehabilitate U.S. human rights policy.

    Cass Sunstein

    Brilliant and prolific (and married to Dr. Power), Sunstein’s expertise ranges from constitutional reform to the politics of technology and government regulation. Obama has appointed Sunstein to the Office of Management and Budget as the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or “Regulation Czar.” His recent work in behavioral economics most likely spurred the nomination. Before Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, many were mentioning him as a possible non-judge nominee. Sunstein attended Harvard for his undergraduate and law degrees before clerking for Thurgood Marshall and teaching law at the University of Chicago. He now holds a named professorship at Havard Law School.

    Sunstein’s most interesting academic work is on technology and regulatory policy. In his books and Republic 2.0, Sunstein investigates the effects of technological advance and on-line political discourse on American democracy. He concludes that more access to information does not necessarily translate into a more fluid democracy. Instead, politics channeled through more high-tech avenues may increase communication only among those who already agree.

    Sunstein can design a novel information policy that allows the Obama administration to deploy technological resources to reach citizens from a variety of interests and backgrounds. In this area, Sunstein should focus particularly on exposing internal policy debates to the public, who should have access to the policy questions that the government is considering and the options that are on the table. Sunstein’s familiarity with high-tech modes of communication increases the likelihood that official government sources will win out over highly-partisan sources in shaping the debate on key public policy issues, including health care reform and environmental reform. The key for Sunstein will be to make transparency mean something. Government information, if it is to matter, must be readable.

    More recently, Sunstein has performed extensive research in behavioral economics and government regulation. His theory of libertarian paternalism allows government to “nudge” citizens to better choices, while preserving their freedom to choose. In choosing a health care plan, for example, the government may select a default plan while allowing citizens to “opt out” and select an alternative. Important questions remain: who is reliable enough to determine the best default plan? Can statistics and regressions identify the most effective options for health care or social security?

    Of course, skepticism abounds. Classic objections ring from certain corners of the American polity: the United States government should not be, in any way, paternalistic. The American ideal is predicated on individual choice. Government does not understand and should not determine the interests of the public, et cetera. These objections, however, are false characterizations of Sunstein’s argument. He is not proposing a more active government as much as he is advocating for a government that provides service to match public needs. Sunstein will play a role in social policy reform and have an opportunity to shape the new programs. He will likely be unafraid to color the internal and external debate with his theoretical and empirical work. While his ideas will undoubtedly be challenged, Sunstein’s intellectual dexterity and breadth will allow him and his ideas to have a lasting effect on American social policy.

    John Holdren

    In a notable break from the Bush presidency, the Obama administration has demonstrated an abiding belief in science. Dr. Holdren’s appointment as science adviser is proof of Obama’s commitment to promote innovation in order to protect the planet and advance nuclear security. In terms of rank, Obama has elevated the seniority of his science adviser to equal that of his National Security Adviser. Dr. Holdren’s talent and experience seem to meet these new expectations.

    Holdren is a renowned scientist who has applied his knowledge of complex environmental problems to public policy. After studying for over a decade at MIT and Stanford and receiving his PhD from the latter in plasma physics, Holdren researched and taught science and policy at a variety of universities and institutes. He ended up at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government teaching and writing about the threat of greenhouse gases and nuclear proliferation.

    Much less controversial and outspoken than the other three, it is likely that Holdren’s influence in the administration will be largely private. Notwithstanding, Holdren can help to ensure that environmental policy respects scientific truths before it seeks to satisfy political realities. He can serve as a strong and educated voice in opposition to global warming deniers. On nuclear issues, he can promote the integration of safety concerns and reduction strategies into diplomatic talks or international treaties.

    As a team, these four intellectuals will have two lasting effects.

    First, the substance of their reforms will improve America’s image across the world, a primary tenet of the Obama foreign policy. The use of “gut feeling” to drive American policy and the prioritization of national security above international order has rendered many members of the international community disenchanted. New models for scientific and technological cooperation, the pursuit of international legal solutions and more aggressive strategies to protect human rights are likely to play well worldwide.

    Second, they will facilitate a more civil interaction between the academic and political communities. As academics’ stock increases, there is likely to be a vitriolic reaction from many in Congress. They will claim that intellectuals do not understand the public, that scholars are closed-minded and idealistic. It is true that these intellectuals might propose solutions that are politically impractical. However, Obama’s intellectuals are not policymakers. Their power is not in their ability to write good legislation, but in their ability to guide internal and public policy debates so that they consider innovative arguments that have been tested in the academic arena.

    Each member of the Obama team will add or reform some piece of the discussion surrounding their area of expertise. While they may not intellectualize how we approach foreign policy or science policy, I hope that they will be unafraid to reference academic work as legitimate evidence. For too long, we have assumed that the public is anti-intellectual, that there is a “war on brains” between snobby academic elites and “real” Americans. The appeal and savvy of these four can soften, if not dismantle, these barriers.


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