Obama’s Ivy Elitism on Display

Obama’s penchant for Larry Summers is just one way in which he displays his Harvard-bred snobbery.

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President Barack Obama announces a new fee on big banks to recover up to $120 billion in taxpayers' money used to prop up corporations during the economic crisis, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, at the White House in Washington. From left are: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, and Budget Director Peter Orszag.

How did a son of Kansas, Kenya and Hawaii get to be such an Eastern elitist? That's a signature trait in the cool character of Barack Obama that we didn't see coming.

What we have is an outbreak of Ivy intellectual snobbery, stronger than any other president since John F. Kennedy. In this important respect, Obama's depth and diversity in nominees does not match President Bill Clinton's record. A man of the people, Clinton knew there were talented people all over the nation that did not go to Ivy League schools. Yet we are about to see Obama's narrowness play out again.

Obama now has two choices before him for Federal Reserve Chairman: the contentious Larry Summers, a Harvard man and former Treasury Secretary, and Vice Chairman Janet Yellen, a highly distinguished Fed economist who is not a Harvard man. She taught for a few years at Harvard, but graduated from Brown University, which may doom her chances in a close contest. All Ivies are not created equal in this administration. Not even Obama's own alma mater, Columbia, is good enough. (He transferred there and graduated in the class of 1983.) On the other hand, Yellen received her Ph.D. at Yale, so her Eastern credentials are strong - just not strong enough.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

In a piece of historical symmetry, Kennedy took the oath of office in 1961, the year Obama was born in August. Happy 52nd, Mr. President! Hate to break your balloons, sir, but Kennedy was the true Harvard man, a freshman in the Yard and all. That's the legend - only Harvard College men need apply. Be that as it may be.

All things being equal, President Obama will always pick the Harvard man - with the emphasis on Harvard, not man. Rotund, outspoken Summers, once the university president for a rocky spell, may well be a shoo-in. (Never mind he once described Obama as "home alone" in the White House.) Obama tipped his hand by defending him vigorously in a closed-door session with House Democrats. Samantha Power, confirmed as his new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went to Harvard Law School. So did Obama. So did Michelle Robinson, the woman he married.

Just a coincidence? Let's put it this way: quite possibly not. Harvard Law is also a shared experience with political enemies such as Chief Justice John Roberts. It gives them something clubby to talk about in ceremonial moments.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Harvard Law School as an elitist brand comes in handy for a man with a storied past because it confers a ready badge of lifelong belonging. High Ivy snobs resemble "ring knockers" in the military brass, always with class rings from West Point and Annapolis. Obama, very self-conscious of his own image and the company he keeps, is more branded than the "Mad Men" cast of characters. His inner Harvard snob hasn't been pointed out till now because Washington is so saturated with them. His two Supreme Court picks, Elena Kagan (with a Harvard pedigree) and Sonia Sotomayor (Yale Law) ran true to form. Obama's community organizer work in Chicago, while true, is misleading. The elegant man we barely know today is in fact an elitist.

And yet, perhaps I found the reason and source for Obama's love of Harvard. It touches a deep chord in his past. When he journeyed to Africa to meet his family as a young man, he was struck by something in his grandmother's house: "On the walls were various family artifacts: the Old Man's Harvard diploma…." His father, Barack Obama, Sr., elusive from his namesake's life, held a Harvard Ph.D. An amazing achievement.

Perhaps Harvard was a way for a son to get closer to his faraway father.

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