BY CHRIS SZABLA
On Thursday, January 8, then President-elect Barack Obama ’91 tapped Professor Cass R. Sunstein ’78 to serve as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a subset of the Office of Management and Budget. It is a position the media has deemed “regulatory czar” – a post that is relatively obscure, but which possesses significant potential power, with the ability to oversee the administration’s entire regulatory regime.
Sunstein, an expert on risk and regulation, joined the faculty only last year, becoming Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law and director of the school’s program on risk regulation. It is likely that he, like departing Dean Elena Kagan ’86, who was recently nominated Solicitor General, will take a leave of absence from teaching.
A perennial habitue of the halls of academe, Sunstein has not held a government post since 1981, when he briefly served as a lawyer in the Justice Department. He has, however, been close to the Obama camp, teaching with the President during the latter’s stint at the University of Chicago, where Sunstein spent 27 years. Sunstein campaigned for Obama in 2008, meeting his current wife, Samantha Power ’99, on the campaign trail. Power, a professor at the Kennedy School, was a member of Obama’s State Department transition team.
Sunstein’s appointment comes as he enjoys the zenith of his scholarly career. Officially the author of over 450 publications, including a dozen books, Sunstein is the country’s most cited legal scholar. His philosophy appears to comport well with Obama’s: his 2007 book Republic 2.0, which argued that the internet promoted political polarization, seemed to prefigure distinctly Obamian calls for a more consensus-driven political culture.
Sunstein has been particularly hailed for his latest volume, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which he co-authored with Chicago economist Richard Thaler. The popularity of the book’s philosophy of “libertarian paternalism”, which argues that government should not make choices for citizens, but “nudge” them in the right direction through suggestions and incentives, has carried Sunstein’s renown across the ideological spectrum. He has earned the accolades of moderate conservatives like New York Times colunmnist David Brooks and British Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The Economist magazine listed the book among the best of 2008, alongside Professor Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, and Prospect magazine named Sunstein and Thaler the third most prominent public intellectuals of the year (the first was General David Petraeus, lauded for his counterinsurgency field manual). Newsweek also listed Sunstein as one of the most influential thinkers of the last year.
Sunstein’s appointment is effectively his first chance to put his academic ideas on regulation into practice. Nevertheless, the whole scheme depends upon the purview the President gives Sunstein’s new office. Under George W. Bush, the post pushed the deregulatory emphasis of the favored by the administration’s market-friendly advisors. There are indications that President Obama’s administration will be far more inclined toward regulation – the incoming President singled out the need for a watchful eye over the market in his inaugural address – but less of a clear picture of how Obama or his team of economic advisors, is prepared to achieve this oversight, or of how far reaching it will be.