Jeremy Weinstein recounts his work at the White House
In a well-lit office on the fourth floor of Encina Hall, Jeremy Weinstein makes his home among papers stacked tall across the room. During a recent afternoon, at a wooden table placed squarely in front of the door, he sat with his legs crossed and spoke passionately about his time at the White House.
Jeremy Weinstein has a foot in two worlds, one at Stanford and one in Washington, D.C. Here, he is an associate professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. But for the past two years, Weinstein worked under President Barack Obama, serving as the director for development and democracy on the National Security Council.
In that role, he dealt with several international issues in the interest of the United States, including global development and democracy, anti-corruption and foreign assistance reform. During that time, Weinstein also helped shape the nation’s agenda for global development through the United States Agency for International Development, a government agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance around the world.
Prior to serving on the National Security Council, Weinstein’s first brush with the White House came under the Clinton administration, during which he focused on Africa policy. There, he developed strong connections and eventually was offered a position as a global development and democracy advisor for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“I was thrilled,” Weinstein said. “I had read ‘Dreams from My Father,’ and I was convinced that this guy was something special. So I quickly got involved in the campaign and…ultimately took a public service leave from Stanford to join the Obama administration.”
Weinstein deeply admired Obama’s foreign affairs strategy, adding that it was an approach that stemmed from Obama’s background as a community organizer. Both he and the President agreed that establishing and maintaining democracy required fostering ties with other countries based on mutual understanding.
“I think at the core of the president’s agenda on democracy and human rights is recognizing that sustainable political change comes from the bottom up,” Weinstein said. “It can’t be imposed from the outside. You tend not to get the kinds of outcomes that you’re interested in unless you have that base of support and interest with people willing to take risks, as we saw in the Arab Spring in their fight for human rights.”
Through his encounters with the president, Weinstein concluded that advocates outside of government were key to constructing public policy. One particular meeting with the president and a group of human rights activists struck a chord with Weinstein that continues to resonate today.
“The president was very powerful in his response in a number of ways,” Weinstein said. “He said to the groups, ‘Your job is to hold my feet to the fire…so, you need to be out there everyday raising these issues, telling us when we’re doing the right or wrong thing. My role is to be President of the United States, and your role is to be a strong voice for people who aren’t always heard.’ I think that’s a powerful message — what produces good policy is not just the expertise of people inside the government, but the pressure that comes from outside.”
Weinstein’s political background in his career outside of government spans years of public policy research and experience and also draws upon his desire to effect change on a global scale.
“In a big picture sense, I’ve always been a social scientist,” Weinstein said. “I believe that [social science] provides powerful tools to help us understand fundamental processes of political and economical change. There’s no place like the West Wing of the White House to have an idea…and be in a position to call on any country, any organization, any business, any group of advocates and convene them around doing something [about it].”
For students aspiring to work in government, Weinstein strongly advised traveling abroad as a way to gain first-hand experience with problems resulting from different histories, cultures and political environments.
“Get out of the United States,” Weinstein said. “It’s really important to experience these issues in places where their salience is high and understand them from the perspectives of people who are fighting every day for human rights and challenging their governments. You can’t learn that from a textbook.”
Weinstein also encouraged depth of knowledge, rather than breadth. The policymakers he most admires are the specialists. Thorough expertise with a specific issue, he said, allows policymakers to be more creative in their area of interest.
“Don’t spread yourself too thin,” Weinstein added. “Know something about something. There are a lot of generalists in Washington, but some of the most effective policy players that I’ve met are people who are deeply invested in accumulating knowledge and expertise about something like global poverty reduction or whatever it might be.”
Weinstein’s White House experiences have left an indelible mark on his views about the international role of the U.S. government. In Weinstein’s opinion, many people see the government as an obstacle to human rights advancement. However, he hopes to instill in the next generation of political leaders the notion that government can be an effective means of large-scale progress.
“I think it’s increasingly easy to write off government as behemoth and bureaucratic and slow and broken…but the U.S. government is a massive player and what it does matters enormously all around the world,” Weinstein said. “We need the best people going into government. [Students] need to see the political process, despite its dysfunction, as a process that can generate good outcomes and make a difference throughout the world.”