Barack Obama's new administration has been characterized many ways — as a return to liberalism, a Chicago Mafia, and the harbinger of a new age.
But what it represents on a grander, political-science level is the return of the intellectual establishment to the seat of power in American politics. Or call it revenge of the nerds.
If there's one overriding theme that characterizes Obama's team, it is that anyone who went to Harvard (or another high-powered elite school) has his full trust. The Boston Globe calls the newly ensconced White House team "Cambridge on the Potomac." And Obama's actions and rhetoric confirm the same impulse. One Obama advisor even told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that the cabinet would be a mixture of Abraham Lincoln's "band of rivals" and "the best and the brightest." In truth, we've seen a lot more of the latter than the former.
Thus, as promised, Obama is moving beyond leftists and rightists and setting up "the establishment" in its place. The establishment, of course, generally eschews partisanship. Thus, the president has no problem meeting with conservative columnists such as George Will or David Brooks — they're part of a related establishment, the media establishment. Even the Internet pundits ushering his charge, Arianna Huffington and Andrew Sullivan, are graduates of, ahem, Oxbridge.
It should be no surprise that a figure who got his real break by attending Harvard Law School and becoming president of the Harvard Law Review should be so bewitched by the intellectual establishment. And, to the extent Obama has promised to be a post–Baby Boom president, it's no shock that he is resurrecting an admiration for the power bloc that was anathema to the original '60s rebels. (And it was their anti-authoritarian impulses that dominated our political life for decades.)
But it's worth remembering how radical a change this is in our political life. "The best and the brightest" and "the wise men" had absolutely no use for George W. Bush. And, to be honest, they weren't crazy about his father (patrician, but still too Texan), Bill Clinton (too Arkansas), Ronald Reagan (too Hollywood and undependent on them), Jimmy Carter (he made them a sworn enemy), Richard Nixon (of course), and Lyndon B. Johnson (who despised the Harvard people who had surrounded John F. Kennedy). In fact, in a comparison that Obama would welcome, you have to go back to JFK — and then Franklin D. Roosevelt — to find the last presidents so in tune with the nation's Ivy League elite.
The good news, of course, is that this elite comprises people who are very smart, and smarts are what we need to get out of the economic mess we're in. "Egghead" should no longer be a pejorative term, as it has been for two generations, going back to the original egghead in the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson.
But there are two dangers for the new president. The first is that he may be setting himself up for a populist political revolt. Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop recently wrote that one thing separating our current era from FDR's is the lack of populist figures to challenge the status quo, such as Huey Long or Upton Sinclair. Well, give it time. The economic crisis has been with us only a few months, and Obama's administration isn't yet a week old. If the crisis lingers, the populists will appear. And, even when it's over and people suddenly realize their 401(k)s are never coming back, they will be looking for scapegoats, only to find that some of the major potential villains, such as Larry Summers (who failed to regulate the markets adequately the first time around when he should have as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary), have desks right next to the president. If that begins to happen, Obama shouldn't be shy about letting heads roll.
The second danger was persuasively outlined by David Halberstam in his seminal history, The Best and the Brightest (a term used ironically) — the story of how the best brains of the '60s got us immersed in the Vietnam War. It might be described as the conceit of intellect. Put another way, there's a story that, when Socrates went to see the Oracle at Delphi, the Oracle told the philosopher he was the wisest man in Greece. Socrates took that to mean that he knew enough to know that he didn't know.
Can one say the same about Obama and his team? There is an extremely fine line between audacity and arrogance. Not confusing one with the other may be the toughest challenge facing the new administration.
To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.