November 11, 2008

Obama administration may draw on University connections

A longtime breeding ground for academics and Nobel laureates, the U of C has not been known as a hotbed for Washington insiders. With Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, however, that could change.

Since Obama called on U of C alumni and faculty during the campaign, speculation has been raised that several will follow the president-elect to Washington.

One such alumnus, chief strategist David Axelrod (A.B. ’79), has already accepted a role in the White House as a senior adviser to the President. University trustee Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama adviser, is continuing her involvement as a leader of his transition team.

Jarrett, who also chairs the Board of Trustees for the University Medical Center, has been seen as a potential pick for a cabinet position in the housing or transportation departments. Jarrett has also been seen as a potential pick to replace Obama in the Senate, an appointment to be made by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

Another veteran campaign adviser, Booth School of Business Professor Austan Goolsbee has offered economics advice to Obama since his Senate race in 2004. While Goolsbee refused to speculate on his chances of following Obama to the capitol, he confirmed that he too has been playing a role in the transition to the White House.

“I’m involved with the transition,” Goolsbee said. “There’s a big economic transition effort, so I’m helping out with that, but I don’t know about the personnel decisions.”

If Goolsbee were brought to Washington, insiders say it would likely be as a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, a Senate-approved group that counsels the White House on economic policy. That role could prove challenging, given the economic climate.

“I wish the economic circumstances of the country weren’t such that he’s almost required to be a great president, with the mess that he’s inherited,” Goolsbee said.

While these U of C affiliates may have the president-elect’s ear in an advisory capacity, several former Law School professors have been floated as candidates Obama could nominate to the Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens (A.B. ’41), himself a University alumnus, is the oldest and longest serving justice of the current court and is widely expected to retire sometime in Obama’s first term.

Cass Sunstein, Elena Kagan, and Diane Wood, all former colleagues of Obama at the Law School, have appeared on various short lists should a position on the Court open up.

Sunstein, who taught at the Law School from 1981 until last year, has also been mentioned by the American Bar Association as a possible domestic policy adviser. Sunstein declined to comment on his own prospects in an e-mail interview.

“The idea of an Obama administration is very exciting, for the country and the world, and anyone who is thinking about his or her role is really not thinking about the right thing,” Sunstein said.

Potential nominee Kagan isDean of the Harvard Law School and was a professor at the U of C Law School from 1991 to 1997. Kagan is high on many short lists, especially given speculation that Obama’s first nominee to the Court could be a woman.

The appointment of either Kagan or Sunstein would break with recent tradition, as neither scholar has judicial experience. Kagan, an associate White House counsel under President Bill Clinton, was nominated to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1999 but saw her nomination blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wood, however, brings bench experience as a justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, to which she was appointed in 1995. She initially joined the University’s faculty in 1991 and continues to serve as a senior lecturer, teaching courses as recently as last spring.