Amid Obama's Change is More of the Same


The Obama administration has been, so far, hierarchical and even conservative in its thinking. Following and even surpassing the Bush administration’s reliance on an M.B.A.-trained elite, which drove the country nearly to ruin, the Obama approach seems to boil down to finding the smartest guy in the room, rather than utilizing people with hands-on experience or acquired wisdom.

This fixation on hierarchy has been unexpected for an administration whose stock sold on the notion of being something other than the same old, same old. Yet as it turns out, the Obamanians seem to be as narrow, if not narrower, than their much-disdained predecessors.

Early on, President Barack Obama’s magical mystery tour gained power in places you would not expect it to — winning critical victories in overwhelmingly white, socially conservative Great Plains and Midwestern states. Yet today, he has built one of the narrowest administrations, both ideologically and regionally, in recent memory.

This trend became apparent in a new National Journal study of the administration’s top 366 officials. To be sure, the Obama team has more Hispanics, African-Americans and women than its predecessors. But beyond gender and color, the Journal reports, this is an administration of remarkable sameness.

For one thing, people with practical business experience — outside of finance — have little role in formulating economic policy. This differs from the Bush administration’s tilt toward traditional autocracies; this is more rule by the cognitive elites. A history of real problem solving seems to matter less than the quality of university pedigrees; the Obama team appears to be a bit like a giant law review, drawing on only the best and brightest from places such as the University of Chicago, Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, as well as some elite think-tank denizens.

This narrow gauge is even clearer geographically. There are few people around the president who come directly from exurbs or small towns; virtually all the inner circle hail from a handful of locales — Washington, Chicago, New York, Boston and the Bay Area. Remarkably, according to the National Journal, only 7 percent worked last year in a state carried by John McCain. Red appears to be one color that does not pass diversity muster for this administration.

The danger here is not so much inexperience but a vision clouded by similar experiences and prejudices from the liberal wing of the baby boomer generation. The president remains broadly popular with the young, yet his administration is actually older than that of President George W. Bush. Obama may be a millennial matinee idol, but his administration appears boomer-dominated in its point of view.

This may explain why Obama has focused so much on the old obsessions of left-leaning boomer elites — health care, civil rights, pacifistic foreign policy — and less on the issues, notably job and wealth creation, that matter most to those younger than 50. Even on the environment, an issue with great appeal to millennial Americans, his approach has been less community-based and consensual and more dogmatically and centrally directed than might appeal to a generation shaped by social networking and the Internet.

Of course, Obama still could change course and evolve into the bold, innovative leader needed for these fast-changing times. However, to get there, he must be more than merely articulate. This president needs a surer and more current approach to dealing with epochal challenges whether on the public squares of Tehran or on this country’s Main Streets.

This article first appeared at Politico.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.

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ARRA is sending $7,000,000,000 (31% of the metro transportation funding) to pay for new road construction, versus less than 4% for public transportation, bicycle and pedestrian projects.

In an era of rising gasoline prices, near-term predictions of 9 degree rises in global temperatures and $500 barrels of oil, and Americans already spending an average of 19% of their incomes on transportation, this isn't exactly the type of policy that I was hopeful for.

We're Spending a Ton on Transit

"ARRA is sending $7,000,000,000 (31% of the metro transportation funding) to pay for new road construction"

This is nothing, right now in the DC area we're spending $5,000,000,000+ for a single extension on our metro line so it can reach Dulles Airport. Anticipated ridership is just 70,000 daily, so capital costs will work out to $85,000 per daily rider. Moreover, the chief funding source is a toll on drivers using the parallel roadway that feeds suburban office parks. What more could a transit advocate want?

Point is none of it has anything do with who's President or which politician should be blamed or credited, but the willingness of local citizens to pay tolls while driving and ride trains through suburbs. And it's not just here, you've got the DART extensions in Dallas, Phoenix light rail opening last year, Seattle light rail this year, all in places not known for transit.

btw, I'm a New Haven native, enjoy your blog


i am not sure of your data.

the rise in temperatures are based on models that may not be accurate. global temperatures- to the total contradiction of the models- have dropped the last two to three years. what this means i do not know, but perhaps skepticism is not a bad thing.

the green lobby is at least as dishonest as the oil companies from my experience. university researchers may not be much better. their historic track record is not very good if you go back to the predictions of the 1970s.

$500 barrel oil or its equivalent has been predicted many times, but the market seems to turn far short of that. there are many positive ways to reduce oil/energy demand such as conservation, more efficient cars, telecommuting that could reduce that demand far short of $500.

unfortunately i have heard extreme predictions like this before. i tend to take them with a touch of salt.

thanks for your comment.

Either way, a very large

Either way, a very large number of people are less and less able to afford private car ownership and operation. Many families are spending more on operating their cars than any other expense, and much of that money leaves the U.S. economy for good. Hybrid cars and conservation won't change that equation at all; only alternative options will. So spending 4% of our transportation funds on transit and 31% on new highways just does not make sense (the rest going for highway maintenance).

Let's hope that you are correct on 20-year energy predictions. I take short term predictions with a grain of salt because I also believe our market has a great deal of adapting to do. However, right now I'm thinking of the DOE's figures that global oil production actually will be significantly lower than what they predicted just 5 years ago. The DOE prediction 5 years ago was 120 million barrels, whereas now it is about 90 million. Either prediction was pretty dire, but 90 is a lot lower than 120 -- and unless Asia stops growing tomorrow, spells an energy crisis in the very near future.

It's clear that we need a new, longer-term horizon for development and infrastructure investment -- and ARRA has fallen short on that, even with the HSR funding. Luckily, both sides of the aisle are now talking much more about introducing new accountability measures that promote a smarter growth pattern -- but this should have been done 40 years ago.

Same old, same old

Obama has surrounded himself with theoreticians, and we all know how trustworthy "theory" typically is once the rubber meets the road.

Still looking for the Hope and Change in an administration that's stuck on the same old Baby Boomer government uber alles mentality. Bush was bad, Obama is worse...he just has better p.r.