Why Kagan? In A Word: "Leadership"


Shortly after President Obama and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan appeared in the East Room of the White House today, I was called to a briefing by White House Senior Adviser (aka spinner-in-chief) David Axelrod, and White House Counsel Bob Bauer for a fuller explanation of why she was chosen.

Over about half-an-hour they used the word "leader" or "leadership" at least two dozen times -- so frequently it sounded like a verbal tic.

"The president feels strongly she has the qualities of a leader," Axelrod said in one variation or another again and again and again. He also praised her intellect, her deep understanding of the law, and he argued that her never having served as a judge is a positive - that she spent her career more in touch with the plight of real people. (I'm not sure how "real" the world is at Harvard Law School.)

But it was leadership that Axelrod kept returning to. And when Bauer spoke he followed the same talking points, right from the top. The president chose her for her "leadership qualities." Throughout her career she has "consistently gained notice for her leadership qualities."

So what's so important about leadership? Well, they explained, when Justice John Paul Stevens retires there's going to be a "leadership void" on the Court, and "her capacity to become a leader and fill that void is great."

The president sees Kagan as "assisting the Court in charting a constitutional path" - a different path than the conservative path it's now on.

Now let's be serious - the brilliance of her arguments is not going to suddenly convince the conservative wing that they've been wrong all along. And even Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing vote, is no easy sell, as Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer have frequently discovered. But what Axelrod and Bauer - and the president - appear to believe is that over time Kagan will use her "incisiveness of mind" to "help illuminate alternative paths."

I think what they're trying to say with their somewhat cryptic talking points is that they think she's so smart and so engaging that she'll be able to find new ways to decide important cases that keep the court from dividing 5-4 along rigid ideological lines. How she'll do that they didn't even give a hint. But they seem confident she can shift the court in a more progressive direction with creative new arguments, and that she'll be there long enough to make a profound difference on the direction of the Court.

One last question from a skeptical reporter - how can they be so confident she's capable of such historic judicial steering, when she's never even been a judge? Well, they say she showed the ability to lead as Dean of Harvard Law School and as Solicitor General.

Something tells me that being a leader in those jobs is a piece of cake compared to doing it with the likes of Justice Antonin Scalia and his conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court.

More Coverage of Kagan's Nomination:

Obama Nominates Elena Kagan to Supreme Court
Washington Unplugged: Elena Kagan Beyond the Gavel
Photos: Elena Kagan
Jan Crawford: Kagan Is a Strategic, Not Political Pick
Four Potential Confirmation Hurdles
Kagan "Honored and Humbled" by Nomination
Peter Maer: Obama Seeks to Frame Kagan Debate on on His Terms
Early Conservative Reaction to Kagan Nomination
Jan Crawford, Bob Schieffer on Why Obama Nominated Kagan
Obama Says Kagan "Embodies Excellence"
Schieffer Sees Bitter, Vicious Fight Over Kagan
Eliot Spitzer: Kagan Would "Get the Fifth Vote"

Chip Reid, CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent
Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.