With his historic inauguration history itself, President Barack Obama has lost no time putting his stamp on the presidency, pushing an economic stimulus package, making overtures to the Islamic world, and ordering the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He has also continued to tap Harvard’s brainpower for posts within his administration, including recent picks economics professors Jeremy Stein and David Cutler and the Law School’s Jody Freeman.
Stein, Cutler, and Freeman join several Harvard faculty members who have already left for Washington, D.C., including Law School Dean Elena Kagan, Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) John Holdren, and former Harvard president and Eliot University Professor Lawrence H. Summers. See the growing list in the sidebar on this page.
It was just over two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., that the United States crossed a historic racial divide to inaugurate Obama as its first African-American president.
Before a sea of watchers arrayed before the U.S. Capitol — as many as 2 million — Obama called for “reaffirming the greatness of our nation.”
His brief address acknowledged the nation’s troubles — a tangle of economic woe, war, and dysfunctional health care — but the 1991 graduate of Harvard Law School also acknowledged the lasting power of American values.
“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit,” said Obama, “to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation — the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
The nation’s 44th president took charge of a country at war and facing a global economic collapse as well as a deteriorating environment. He took office at the end of a contentious two-term presidency colored by the calamitous terror attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror. He can be assured that his every twitch will be examined by a large and enthusiastic following — both at home and abroad — with high expectations. This all takes place against the backdrop of an ever-tighter knit-world dominated economically, militarily, and culturally by the nation he will lead.
“There are events that are called ‘historic’ and ‘truly historic,’” said David King, lecturer in public policy at HKS and an expert on American elections and politics. “Obviously, this is ‘truly historic.’”
Obama, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, is among eight U.S. presidents who have held Harvard degrees. The list includes John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1975. While at Harvard, Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated in 1991.
King ranked Obama’s election together with just a handful of watershed presidencies in U.S. history: 1828’s election of Andrew Jackson, which saw the founding of the Democratic Party and ushered in new banking, cultural, and social policy; 1856, which saw the rise of the Republican Party; 1860, which put Abraham Lincoln in the White House, marking the only time a third-party candidate became president and wiping out the second party in the process; and 1932, which made Franklin Delano Roosevelt president and brought about a new era of activist government.
“I think this is one of those moments,” King said. “Unlike many previous elections, this was a unifying election. … I think this is the next Great Generation.”
King ranks just one inauguration above those in that group: the 1797 inauguration of John Adams, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power in U.S. presidential history, proving that it could be done and that the Founding Fathers had created something enduring.
But some say the true significance of Obama’s presidency remains to be seen.
Richard Parker, lecturer in public policy at HKS, said that though Obama’s inauguration is a “breakthrough moment,” the day’s true measure will be whether the nation undergoes deep structural change in the years to come.
Parker, an economist, said the needed change is easy to identify in the economic sphere. For 30 years, he said, the nation has been heading the wrong way on income equality, with more and more wealth concentrated among the top 1 percent, which today holds double the share of the nation’s wealth it had 30 years ago. Another issue, Parker said, is a structural imbalance among the nation’s industrial sectors. Health care today is a larger part of the economy than manufacturing, an indication that health care costs are too high and that manufacturing strength is waning.
Another area in need of fundamental change, Parker noted, is the way the economy impacts the environment. New tools need to be developed to measure economic growth that takes into account environmental consequences so that the true cost of a product or service can be measured.
Obama’s plate is already heaping with issues in addition to the economy, which, according to Barbara Kellerman, the James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the HKS, is why it’s a good thing that he’s gotten started already.
Kellerman, founding executive director of the Center for Public Leadership and author of the book “Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters,” said
that Obama has had such an active transition that — despite assertions that the U.S. has just one president at a time — this inauguration is largely ceremonial.
Though there are major problems facing the nation — and Obama — at home, Kellerman said that the wild card in a presidency typically comes from abroad in the form of unforeseen foreign policy challenges.
Kellerman said that the significance of the Obama inauguration is as much about the American people — America’s “followers” — as it is about big events and leadership.
Obama’s election, Kellerman said, signals a new generation of followers flexing their electoral muscle, wielding new technologies, and harboring new expectations for their leaders.
“I make the argument that followers the world over are part of a more active and demanding generation than in the past,” Kellerman said.
Given the problems the nation faces, the electorate appears tolerant and willing to let Obama draw on their goodwill. A recent New York Times poll reported that most Americans are optimistic the new president will address the country’s problems — but expect no solutions for the economy, health care, or Iraq for at least two years. But the electorate is notoriously fickle, and Obama’s political enemies are real.
“People will be ready and eager to pounce on his failures,” King said.
Parker, who wrote a biography of the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith, noted that Galbraith once said that he admired John Kennedy more than Bobby Kennedy because Jack was “cool,” while Bobby was “hot.” Obama, Parker said, has already exhibited a suave cool similar to Jack’s that assures people he’s in control. The problem, Parker said, may be with his passionate followers, who are bound to be disappointed repeatedly and sometimes severely.
“I think we have Jack in the White House and Bobby in the support base,” Parker said.
— Corydon Ireland also contributed to this story.