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White House

Obama's Love of Elites

The president struck a populist note in his speech, but it's hard to tell he believes it when you look at his administration.


photo of James Oliphant
January 29, 2014

President Obama drew applause from the House chamber for striking what seemed to be a populist blow against elitism in his State of the Union.

"I believe that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams," Obama said early in his remarks.

Looking at his administration, however, you would never know he believes that. Yes, as the president pointed out, both he and House Speaker John Boehner come from modest backgrounds. But as a graduate of Harvard Law School, Obama has shown himself more of that stripe, stuffing his administration with like-minded denizens of the Ivy League.


George W. Bush attended Yale University and Harvard Business School, and his vice president, Dick Cheney went to Yale as well (and, yeah, he flunked out), but they carried chips on their shoulders about it the rest of their lives. Both felt like outsiders among the Eastern elite. Obama instead has embraced that culture like few presidents before him.

National Journal survey last year of 250 decision-makers in the Obama administration found that no fewer than 40 percent of them held Ivy League degrees. Moreover, just one-quarter of those officials held graduate degrees from a public university. In fact, more Obama administration officials secured advanced degrees from Oxford—you know, in England—than from any American public school. And more than 60 either attended Harvard as an undergrad or a grad student.

The survey also found than an overwhelming majority of administration officials hailed from the Northeast, with the West and South severely underrepresented. Just 18 percent came from a state that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. As the survey noted, "You're more likely to find someone who grew up overseas working in the top ranks in the administration than someone who grew up in Texas."

To be fair, not every Ivy Leaguer sports a silver spoon—and Obama at times has shown an affinity for those who, like himself, got there the hard way. One prime example is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the president's first pick for the Supreme Court, who attended Princeton and then Yale Law.

Still, it all sort of makes one grateful for the presence of the two men who sat behind Obama on Tuesday night: Vice President Joe Biden—a grad of the University of Delaware (go, Fightin' Blue Hens) and Syracuse Law, where he finished 76th in his class out of 85—and Boehner, who matriculated from Xavier University. Xavier, actually, is just down the road from Oxford.

Oxford, Ohio, that is.

Obama's State of the Union Address in 90 Seconds

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