Behind every president…

…there’s a local angle. In assembling his White House team, Barack Obama has chosen a fair share of experts and advisers with ties to Chicago.

By Mary Ruth Yoe

Photography by Dan Dry

Eleven days after his November 4 election to the presidency, former Law School senior lecturer Barack Obama announced his first appointment with University of Chicago connections. Over the next eight weeks, as the president-elect continued to assemble his team, Chicago names peppered the lists of staff and policy positions.

First up was Obama campaign adviser and transition-team cochair Valerie B. Jarrett, joining the White House staff as senior adviser, assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations, and public liaison. Jarrett, who chairs the Medical Center’s trustees and is vice chair of the University Board of Trustees, met Obama in 1991, when she was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff. She has even longer ties to the University. Her father, James H. Bowman, is professor emeritus in pathology and medicine, and her mother, Barbara Taylor Bowman, AM’52, who taught at the Lab Schools, where Jarrett was a student, is an early-childhood-education expert who cofounded the Erickson Institute.

On the heels of Jarrett’s appointment, Obama named two Chicago alumni to White House posts. Lisa Brown, JD’86, who left her job as executive director of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy to work on the transition team, takes a permanent post as White House staff secretary. Brown will draw upon her experience as in-house legal counsel to Vice President Al Gore in a job that the New York Times calls “the gatekeeper for nearly every piece of paper that reaches the president’s desk.”

photoPresident Zimmer with Valerie Jarrett at at her mid-January going-away party. Jarrett resigned from both the University and Medical Center boards to join the Obama administration.

Obama tapped his campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, AB’76, as senior adviser. A former Chicago Maroon and Tribune reporter who has spent the past two decades guiding Democratic political candidates, Axelrod told the Tribune that he expects his new role will mirror that of the 2008 presidential campaign: “working with Obama, speechwriters, and the White House communications team to ‘tell the American people our story.’”

For the foreseeable future, that story will center on responding to the national and global economic crisis. In announcing the formation of a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board, chaired by former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, Obama turned to a U of C professor who has counseled him on economic issues since his 2004 Senate race: Austan Goolsbee. As the new board’s staff director and chief economist, Goolsbee, the Robert P. Gwinn professor of economics at Chicago Booth—and an expert on the Internet, the new economy, government policy, and taxes—will be the primary liaison between the board and the administration.

Obama also nominated Goolsbee to the three-member Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). The two assignments, the professor told the Maroon, should prove complementary: “[T]he CEA, whose role is to provide objective economic analysis, will play a role with the board. That’s why they put me on both.”

For his secretary of education, Obama again turned to the home team, nominating fellow Hyde Parker (and frequent basketball buddy) Arne Duncan, U-High’82. The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools—who has championed charter schools, closed failing schools, and improved test scores—is the son of the late Chicago psychology professor Starkey Duncan, PhD’65. The teenage Duncan spent his free time working with inner-city kids at the South Side children’s tutoring center his mother founded and continues to run. “[N]o issue—no issue—is more pressing than education,” Duncan emphasized at the December 16 announcement of his nomination. “Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening our economy, or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread.”

With Inauguration Day pressing nearer and appointments accelerating in early January, the Chicago connections continued. Named to the White House staff as an associate counsel to the president, Susan Sher, the U of C Medical Center’s vice president for legal and governmental affairs and general counsel, will work on legal issues surrounding health-care policy. She will also provide legal advice to incoming first lady Michelle Obama, with whom she worked when the latter was the Medical Center’s vice president for community and external affairs.

Barack Obama’s nomination for solicitor general—the administration’s representative before the U.S. Supreme Court—is someone he met during his Law School days, Elena Kagan. The Harvard Law School dean taught at Chicago from 1991 until 1995, when she joined the Clinton administration, helping to formulate and implement law and policy in education, crime, and public health.

Another Chicago name hit media reports in early January. Cass Sunstein is expected to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, charged with improving the effectiveness of government regulation in health, environment, and other domestic areas. A close friend and Obama adviser, Sunstein—an expert in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law, as well as law and behavioral economics—began teaching at Chicago in 1981 and remains a visiting professor after a move to Harvard last year.

As the Obama administration continues to build its team, one question remains to be answered: How U of C is Washington, DC?

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