Stanford academics reflect on life at the White House, upcoming Obama nominations

As President Barack Obama enters his second term, he will rely heavily on appointees from the world of academia to replace departed advisers and fill new positions. The Daily spoke to Stanford faculty members with past experience in government about their time in Washington, D.C.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): As we have seen with recent candidates for Cabinet positions, like Ambassador Susan Rice ’86, former Sen. Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew, political appointments have become heavily contentious. Was this the same as when you served in government?

Alain Enthoven, assistant secretary of defense, 1965-69: No, actually, it was a very different world. When President Kennedy was elected he appointed key cabinet positions from both political parties, without any reference to whether they supported him or not, or without any reference to their political affiliation. He just went for the best, most highly qualified people, and when I was being nominated to be assistant secretary of defense, nobody asked me who I had voted for or anything like that. It was strictly a matter of knowledge and competence. Unfortunately, that has deteriorated a lot and I think now, high-level appointments to the executive branch are much more influenced by politics.

TSD: Given today’s partisan conflict, do you ever feel relieved that you are no longer in the fray?

Keith Hennessey ’90, director of the National Economic Council 2007–09: Every day [laughs]. I don’t mind being a part of tense negotiations or tense conflict if it has a decent chance of leading to some sort of progress. I think what would be very frustrating about being in Washington right now is to have all the tension and conflict with very little possibility of anything more than the status quo. That’s what I think would be more difficult.

TSD: How did your time in government inform and change your teaching and research?

Jeremy Weinstein, National Security Council 2009–11:  I think one of the things you realize when you have the opportunity to serve in government is that the opportunity exists to make change on a transformative scale. And one of the virtues of being a faculty member and teacher at Stanford is to be in an environment where, through your research and teaching, you can really tackle tough challenges and think about creative and innovative solutions. And so, in coming back to Stanford, one of the things I very much focused my attention on is how, with the freedom and space that Stanford provides us… we can identify those issues… for which we don’t have good solutions, and use the space and creativity and intelligence that we have gathered on this campus to really address those issues.

TSD: What were the biggest difficulties you encountered while working in government?

Jeremy Weinstein: I think it’s clear that in making a transition from academia to public service, these represent two fundamentally different environments.

In this environment, as scholars and teachers, we have tremendous freedom to set our agenda, define questions in the ways that we want to ask them and build strategies that make sense. We’re sort of the masters of our own domain.

In government you are effectively doing the work of a coalition-builder, so it draws on an entirely different set of skills and muscles that you need to exercise and strengthen. So in addition to having good ideas and figuring out how to provide the best evidence for a particular policy proposition that you’re promoting, you also have to figure out how to work the system, how to build a coalition and how to figure out what allies you need to bring on board in order to either get a particular policy adopted or have it successfully implemented.

TSD: Were you afforded the same sort of freedom while in government as when you were at Stanford– freedom to express yourself in the way that you would be able to in a place of learning, as opposed to a politicized environment?

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar Ph.D 00, White House Domestic Policy Council 2009-10: There was, in some ways, just as much freedom. There was freedom to discuss with colleagues new ideas, to think about different ways of achieving goals, to gather information about some things, but in academia, you’re generally operating as a scholar, on your own.

In government you’re part of a big team. When you speak you may speak on behalf of the administration or even perhaps the U.S. government, so that necessarily changes some of the latitude you have to make decisions on your own. In the same fashion, when senior White House officials in the kinds of jobs like the one I had are asked to give a speech, you do have to think a little bit about how this is going to affect agencies that you work with and people that you work with.

TSD: What did you miss about academia?

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar: I loved the constant stimulation of new challenges while I was in government, but I missed the time to think and reflect for a longer period of time on the challenges that were on my desk. Really, I missed the people and the time. I missed some of my academic colleagues. I would call them sometimes to get ideas and I would come back and visit them.

In academia you’re surrounded by people who are not only very smart but also who have as their job to understand the world better, and that’s very stimulating. In government, you’re surrounded by people who are often also very smart but whose job may be to get something done, to implement something, to oversee something or to coordinate, so people understand their roles in fundamentally different ways.

About Aaron Sekhri