Eyeing the presidency as a freshman senator, Obama turned to his classmates first for their high-level contacts, and then to help raise campaign cash. Now, they’re putting their day jobs on the backburner to help their friend build a government.
“If you think about the progression of the president-elect’s national career, initially he didn’t have a national network of people who he could call on,” said Cassandra Butts, general counsel for the transition. “The Harvard group was helpful on that front — helping him make introductions on policy, political and financial fronts.”
Besides Butts, other top Harvard grads around Obama include Chris Lu, who will serve as Obama’s liaison with Cabinet departments; Tom Perrelli, who works on the Justice Department transition team; and Julius Genachowski and Michael Froman, who sit on the 12-member Transition Advisory Board.
Turning to decades-old personal relationships is nothing new for presidents. But the depth of Obama’s Harvard ties is notable, potentially outstripping the levels seen during alum John F. Kennedy’s administration, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “The numbers seem very large to me,” he said.
Harvard was one of just three major touchstones for Obama at the beginning. The world of Chicago politics produced his most influential advisers, including chief campaign strategist David Axelrod and businesswoman Valerie Jarrett. Obama also relied on Washington veterans from his Senate office.
But it’s the Harvard relationships that reach two decades back, forged during a popular constitutional law class, at the financial aid counter in Pound Hall, in Butts’ kitchen during a dinner party, through long nights at the Harvard Law Review. As distance separated them, Obama was the one to try to stay in touch — penning personal letters in the days before e-mail, picking up the phone to congratulate a friend on the birth of a child.
Still, the Harvard chapter of his life wasn’t the one highlighted on the campaign trail, where Republicans attempted to cast Obama as an elitist. In the gauzy details of biography, he was the son of a single mother who gave up cushy corporate jobs to work the Chicago streets as a community organizer — not the product of Harvard and Columbia University, where he attended college.
Yet now, as Obama stitches together a government, the Harvard crew is taking a prime role. They get up early and go to bed late at night, spending the hours in between sifting through resumes, providing legal advice, and receiving briefings on the inner workings of a vast federal bureaucracy.
The network, although loose, looks like the cross-section of a tree trunk, with a small group of the oldest friends occupying the innermost ring.
Butts, the transition general counsel, bonded with Obama as they filled out the financial aid forms guaranteeing years of debt for their Harvard education. As a Washington operative, Butts would later connect Obama to key figures such as Dick Gephardt during the infancy of his national political career. On the presidential campaign, she served as a domestic policy adviser.
At Harvard, Butts was moot court partners with Perrelli, who first met Obama at the dinner party and served as his managing editor on the Harvard Law Review. Perrelli, a Washington lawyer who had never been a fundraiser, would go on to collect more than $500,000 for Obama’s presidential campaign. He is now part of the Department of Justice transition team.
“We have all been friends together, and we found a common enterprise through Barack,” Perrelli said.
Perrelli occupied seat 151 of professor Laurence Tribe’s constitutional law class in the fall 1989 semester — just a few feet away from Obama (seat 26) and two others who would prove vital to his ambitions: Julius Genachowski (93) and Michael Froman (103).
Froman, a managing director at Citigroup, would later introduce Obama to Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary who became a key adviser. Genachowski would become a technology policy adviser. Both men now serve on the 12-member transition advisory board.
Genachowski also raised more than $500,000 in the past two years. Froman, who bundled $50,000 in contributions for John F. Kerry in 2004, brought in more than $200,000 for Obama.
Another key figure is Lu, who lost touch with Obama until he arrived in the Senate. Obama hired Lu as his legislative director, then as the executive director of the transition. Lu was announced last month as the Cabinet Secretary-designate, the liaison between the White House and the heads of executive departments.
Just beyond this innermost ring are more than a dozen classmates whose years at Harvard overlapped with Obama’s and who are also working for the transition. More are providing counsel on an informal basis.
If Bill and Hillary Clinton heightened the mystique of Yale Law School in the 1990s, Barack and Michelle Obama, who earned a Harvard law degree three years before her husband, appear poised to do the same for their alma mater in the new administration. In addition to Obama’s former classmates, dozens of people with Harvard ties can be found working on the transition.
Yale University, which consistently edges out Harvard in law school rankings, counts several alumni among those assisting Obama, as do dozens of public and private universities, including Ohio State; the University of California, Berkeley; and Georgetown. But their numbers do not match those from Harvard, according to a Politico review of transition team lists.
Others are in the wings. The Harvard Law Record, a weekly paper produced by law students, lamented the school’s popularity in an editorial last month headlined, “Obama’s gain is Harvard’s Drain. Exodus to D.C. threatens Cambridge quality.”
Singling out the potential loss of the dean, Elena Kagan, who has been mentioned for a Justice Department post, the paper wrote: “It is with a mix of enthusiasm and regret, therefore, that we anticipate the Crimson tide about to engulf the White House and Capitol Hill.”
David Dante Troutt, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, met Obama during their first year at Harvard, where they shared the same class section and cigarette breaks. “We were both skinny and cold and full of tobacco outside the buildings during the Cambridge winters,” he said.
Troutt said he knows about a half-dozen fellow classmates who have tried to volunteer their services to Obama, but couldn’t be accommodated.
“There is almost a un-Harvard-like desire to contribute collectively to whatever it may be,” said
Troutt, who is dabbling on policy issues on an informal basis. “It can be a little tough sometimes for high-achieving folks to bask in another’s great achievement. There were many people who had political ambitions out of that class. … Barack has received an outpouring of support which is uncharacteristic in its breadth and its strength.”