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.

US President Barack Obama makes remarks before entertainment following a state dinner in honor of Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House in Washington on May 19, 2010.
National Journal
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James Oliphant
Jan. 29, 2014, 1:22 p.m.

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.


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