OK, I know that’s an odd way to put it, but I spent a lot of time years ago learning the most minor and trivial details about Japanese politics and nearly all of the leading and not so leading politicians in Japan’s National Diet — and that’s how they’d refer to smart people attached to a Nakasone or Miyazawa or Takeshita. Some so-and-so was Prime Minister Takeshita’s brain. . .
What is clear about candidates of the caliber of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and even John Edwards is that each is his or her own brain, but they still have very smart people around them.
Two people I want to mention today are Karen Kornbluh and Austan Goolsbee. I know Karen very well — and Austan only from a distance, but they are both formidable intellectuals.
Kornbluh worked as Director of the Work and Family Program at the New America Foundation as one of my best colleagues — and previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff at the Department of Treasury under Robert Rubin and also as Director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Federal Communications Commission. She also worked for Senator John Kerry (D-MA) on the Senate Commerce Committee.
Karen Kornbluh is known in DC for many things — but the two most important contributions she has made are on one hand one of the most articulate calls for national investment in broadband connectivity and on the other for her framing of the “juggler family” and as well for her famous essay, “The Mommy Tax.”
Kornbluh is now Barack Obama’s Policy Director on his Senate staff and has had a hand in many of Obama’s most provocative and interesting policy initiatives, particularly “Health for Hybrids” — a deal that would help tie American government incentives to the auto industry in a trade of some subsidies for the health care overhang in the industry so that they move more ambitiously to higher fuel efficiency levels. I don’t know what the state of the proposal is today — and it’s certainly controversial — but practically any non-status quo proposal is.
In 2004, I rembember a conversation with Karen at the front foyer of the New America Foundation with some other women who had visited. Some of these women were part of the Democratic power circles of Montgomery County, Maryland — which means that they are also part of the power elite of the Democratic party nationally. I expressed real concern then about the direction of the Democratic Party — and particularly the then slim possibility that John Kerry might get the nomination.
There were many different views expressed, but Karen Kornbluh looked at me and said that when all of the ups and downs of the process were over, she thought Kerry would be the last person standing.
What impressed me about Kornbluh’s vision is that everyone from Howard Dean to Joseph Lieberman to John Edwards to Richard Gephardt had borrowed Karen’s framing of the juggler family problem and the stress on not just low income households but middle class households. Everyone used her stuff — everyone except John Kerry.
Kerry is an interesting and valuable legislator but has an occasional tin ear in my view — and while he secured the Democratic Party nod like Kornbluh predicted, Karen’s own political prediction was untainted by her own interests — something extremely rare in today’s marketplace of political punditry.
Austan Goolsbee is another major intellectual force around Obama. I’ve never met him though we have exchanged some data bits. He has been Obama’s economic advisor since his successful run for the Senate and now advises him on the presidential campaign. He’s also a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago — and a prolific op-ed writer. This is significant because there are few incentives in classic academia, particularly in a fortress of neoliberal economics like the University of Chicago, to venture beyond peer-reviewed professional articles into policy and political discourse with general audiences.
But as I have written before, all of the presidential candidates are franchises more than people unto themselves. They carry with them the equivalent of a large royal court of policy advisers, sycophants, strategists, funders — many of whom strongly disagree with each other internally over policy.
Goolsbee and Kornbluh are first rate — but it is interesting to note that I recently learned that Obama was coached extensively in the first round of debate prep by Austan Goolsbee who allegedly helped Obama to work through the reality of issues that might come up — and the various onion skins of nuance.
That sounds like my kind of adviser actually. But then Goolsbee was blocked — either by himself or others in Obama’s political team — from participating in any more debate prep sessions.
This raises the question then of whether Obama’s acclaimed oratory of late is veneer and tactic — or something more real.
But to quote — which I probably shouldn’t but will anyway — Karen Kornbluh about something she said to me about Obama and that I think is important, she said “Barack listens to all of the options, hears them all, and then he does what is right — not just what is expedient or makes the most political sense.”
— Steve Clemons