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 NewGeography.com 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.