Obama’s appointees, by the numbers


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It is no secret that President Barack Obama ’91’s administration is supposed to contain some of the country’s “best and brightest” individuals – not a few of whom are Harvard graduates. The New York Times‘ David Brooks hailed the incoming administration as a “valedictocracy” of Ivy alumni. Until now, however, little quantitative data has been produced analyzing the backgrounds of the administration’s appointments.

The Record compiled a database of over one hundred Obama appointees, serving in posts ranging from high cabinet positions to White House schedulers. The results may not present the most accurate picture of the nation’s new ruling class – not all appointments carry equal influence, after all – but they do present a broad portrait of the makeup of Obama’s choices. In some cases, they also demonstrate qualifications they needed to thrust themselves into the President’s field of vision.

We looked at five sets of data – institutions where Obama appointees earned their degrees, the types of degrees they earned, their jobs before entering the administration, their genders, and their race. The first category did not produce very surprising results. While the Bush administration was known for privileging loyalty over credentials, digging deep into conservative bastions like Regent University for high level Justice Department appointments, the Obama administration has plucked most of its staffers from the Ivy League and other high performing universities.

Harvard dominates the field, with nearly a quarter of all Obama appointees having earned some sort of degree there. At least seven administration staffers earned degrees from the law school alone. Slightly more surprising is the strong representation from Georgetown, which bested Yale and Princeton, and the University of Michigan, which tied them (the ratio was also reflected in administration members’ former law schools; Georgetown, Michigan, and Yale Law Schools each contributed the same number of graduates, tying for second place after Harvard). The Vice President’s office was not analyzed for this survey, but appears to contain a surfeit of Georgetown Law grads.

The conspicuous abundance of Georgetown and Michigan alumni in the administration may have to do with geographic bias. Georgetown graduates tend to work in, and be familiar with, the highest reaches of the capital. Michigan, meanwhile, is well represented in the Midwest, and in the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago, in particular (the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law, was also among the top ten most represented institutions among members of the new administration).Michigan is also a top public university; a similarly well-endowed public institution; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also produced a number of members of the new administration. A number of incoming staff also attended highly-ranked British universities: Oxford, where Bill Clinton forged many of his early political relationships, and its urban rival, the London School of Economics, both performed strongly.

Also unsurprising is the number of those in the new administration who hold law degrees – nearly 40% of those brought into the White House. The phenomenon is particularly acute within the general Executive Office staff. Among cabinet office holders, however, law school alumni are tied with specialist masters degree holders for influence. At least seven Obama appointees hold more than one graduate degree.

A disproportionate number of Obama administration staffers – mostly the rank and file, who do not hold positions in the cabinet – were brought over from similar positions on Capitol Hill, where they worked in the offices of Congressmen and Senators. A considerable number were, however, recruited from academia, or think tanks such as the Center for American Progress, where transition director John Podesta held sway.

Conspicuously few appointees had been full-time Obama campaign staff before the months leading up to the election. Those who were earned the most conspicuous loyalty appointments; a considerable number lack professional degrees, and a significant number were instrumental in Obama’s early primary push in Iowa.

While most commentators have hailed Obama’s victory as the fall of a racial barrier, the new administration remains dominated by Caucasians, who make up more than half the administration’s cabinet and staff. Still, Obama has appointed a not unremarkable number of minorities to key posts, significantly boosting the number of African-Americans and Hispanics in the upper reaches of government. The picture for women is somewhat bleaker; they make up less than 40% of the new administration, and are mostly represented in the least influential positions.

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