Whom Will Obama Choose? Part II: HLS Candidates for the Cabinet


Last week, the Record profiled the many HLS affiliates on the advisory board and senior staff of Barack Obama ’91’s presidential transition team. In this edition, we delve into the rumors about the President-elect’s cabinet selections to speculate on which alums might make the cut.

Justice Department

As sure as DoJ tops many HLS students’ career path wish lists, its upper-level posts tempt law professors and professionals near and wide. Unfortunately for HLS affiliates and aficionados, it became clear on Tuesday that twice-over Columbia alum Eric Holder likely had a lock on the Attorney General slot. Harvard contenders can breathe a sigh of relief, however – the vetting process on Holder isn’t complete yet, let alone the confirmation hearings that will have to be held in the Senate. Controversy still surrounds Holder’s work to pardon of Mark Rich when he served as Acting Attorney General in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

In a heavily Democratic Congress, however, opposition to any Obama appointee is likely to be relatively light. Realistically, the HLS contenders for DoJ jobs might have to look to the Deputy post for any patronage paybacks. That might beg off one of the names once bandied-about for AG: Jamie Gorelick ’75, who already served as a Deputy Attorney General under Clinton. Still, Gorelick has shown desire to emerge from private sector exile at WilmerHale. She served on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, enraging then-AG Ashcroft with her apparent conflict of interest (she had authored a controversial memo on counterterrorism policy while she was at Justice). Gorelick may see another stint as a way to set things right.

More prominent among those mentioned for Deputy AG are Dean Elena Kagan ’86 and Prof. Cass Sunstein ’78, who were both touted for the top job earlier. Either would undoubtedly be a strong choice, although the fact that both have around speculation about a future Supreme Court appointment might make Obama hesitate – or one of them indicate they might turn the offer down. Despite his longstanding fondness for Obama, Prof. Laurence Tribe ’66 would likely decline as well – with his age and experience, he might be reluctant to play second fiddle. Rounding out the list are close Obama advisor Prof. Charles Ogletree ’78, Alabama Representative Artur Davis ’93 and Kathleen Sullivan ’81. Davis, named Best Orator in the Ames Competition, was elected in 2003. He might help Obama put a fresh face in his administration, consistent with his “change” theme, and boost the Democratic Party’s profile in the blood-red South. Sullivan, a former Stanford Law dean, might help the President-elect with the dearth of women appointees he appears to be facing. She was – in the words of Tribe – “the most brilliant student” he’d ever had – until Obama himself came along.

Treasury Department

Fortunately, HLS won’t have to face much association with the deep recession that the future Treasury Secretary will find him or herself knee-deep in. One of the closest contenders was former Harvard University President Larry Summers, who is now apparently out of the running – so much the better, detractors say, given that his comments about women might give the new administration an aura it didn’t quite need.

At least one Harvard Law School affiliate remains a long shot for the post. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin attended HLS for a grand total of three days before leaving “to see the world.” Practically, that meant attending the London School of Economics before finally earning his J.D. – at Yale. We sincerely hope that, in the inconceivable event Rubin is chosen to reprise his role, the country’s economic failures are not blamed on any law and economics courses he wandered into during his fateful 72 hours as a Harvard Law student.

Department of Education

The fight for Secretary of Education now looks much less exciting. While former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell was seen as a dark horse favorite for the position, his self-recusal from any role in the new administration has left the door wide open for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein ’71. Klein, who graduated from Columbia and HLS magna cum laude before clerking for Justice Powell, has been in charge of the country’s largest school district since 2002. In the role, he’s earned his fair share of admirers – and enemies. Controversially, he invited the city police to help impose order in schools. He also led the effort to expel Obama friend Rashid Khalidi, a moderate Middle East historian, from a public service program in city schools – based on a misapprehension of Khalidi similar to that employed by the partisan right during the waning days of the presidential campaign. The President-elect may yet choose to go with a fresher (and less entangled) figure.

Office of Management and Budget

As the federal deficit climbs into the stratosphere and federal agencies proliferate in D.C. like never since the New Deal, OMB is one cabinet-level post receiving extra-careful scrutiny this year. Sources indicate that Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag may have already snagged the Office’s Directorship, but if he hasn’t – Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper ’80, who serves on both the House Budget and Government Oversight and Reform Committees, might be ready and willing to fill his shoes. Cooper studied history, politics, and economics at UNC-Chapel Hill and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Since graduating HLS, he has spent most of his life in politics, entering Congress and leaving only once – to run for Senate. Improbably beaten back by the laconic and lethargic Fred Thompson, he retreated to the House, where his alternative health care proposals earned the ill will of Hillary Clinton – a fact that could stir tension (and a turf war) whether or not Clinton moves to the Cabinet or stays in the Senate.

Department of the Interior

After a campaign in which “drill, baby, drill” became a salient part of the national conversation, Interior, like OMB, is receiving unusual scrutiny this year. One strong contender is University of California Hastings School of Law professor John Leshy ’69. Most of Leshy’s legal career has involved work on energy issues, including posts at the Natural Resources Defense Council, as Associate Solicitor for Energy and Resources in the Carter administration, and as the House’s Counsel on Natural Resources. Leshy is currently one of the leads for the department’s transition team, which, depending on how you look at it, either boosts or impairs his chances.

State Dept. / Nat’l. Security Council

Love her or hate her, Samantha Power ’99 is a fixture in Obamaland. The Yale College alumna, Bosnian War journalist, and Kennedy School professor catapulted to foreign policy circle fame with her book on genocide – and plunged to political infamousness when, during the primaries, she denounced Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” She proceeded to raise the stakes of legal world intrigue by luring Cass Sunstein from his former lover, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and his former place of employment, the University of Chicago. Obama sent greetings to their wedding in July.

For all her primary indiscretions, Obama-watchers assumed Power, who primed Obama on foreign policy early in his campaign, would reemerge during the transition phase to take on some role in the administration. National Security Advisor was floated, although Power’s primary area of expertise is wars of choice – humanitarian interventions. Other commentators have more reasonably envisioned her as Deputy Secretary of State or Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning unit, the department’s internal think tank. Would a potential Secretary of State Hillary Clinton countenance her presence in the same building? Only, perhaps, if Obama plans on outsourcing his Lincolnesque “Team of Rivals” approach to Foggy Botto

Homeland Security/CIA/ODNI

At least one HLS alum appears qualified for at least one of these positions to most Washington-watchers – California Representative Jane Harman ’69. While the CIA Directorship appears to be former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake’s if he so desires, Harman’s experience handling national security related civil rights issues have made her an object of speculation for the new Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence Posts. “Change” advocates might be wary, however – her support for wiretapping and for the Iraq War resolution helped launch a highly competitive primary challenge against her in 2006. Given that she has one of the most liberal voting records in the House on social issues, a Harman appointment might inflame both left and right – an approach the purportedly post-partisan Obama probably would not want to take. Jamie Gorelick’s name has been floated as an alternate choice for DHS.

Note: This article went to print before Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano was floated as the President-elect’s apparent favorite for Homeland Security.


Although speculators can’t seem to settle on any one position, many feel that Jennifer Granholm ’87 won’t be left out in the Cabinet office-less cold. The Michigan Governor has been a rising star in the Democratic Party and may have even been a viable presidential primary contender if not for her Canadian birth. A current member of Obama’s economic advisory team, she could help Obama up his female Cabinet member quotient and hopefully bring some expertise in dealing with the beleaguered industries and economies of the industrial Midwest. If she does not receive an administration post, Granholm’s chances to go to Washington may not have faded altogether: she has also been on the receiving end of some Supreme Court buzz.

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