By Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff
In choosing Cass R. Sunstein to lead his regulatory reform effort, President-elect Barack Obama has tapped a leading public intellectual and legal scholar who has been called a "one-man think tank." The 54-year-old Harvard Law School professor is an idea-generating machine, prolific writer, and media-savvy communicator.
"It's a sign of President-elect Obama's seriousness about regulatory reform," said Jeffrey Rosen, a professor at The George Washington University Law School and legal affairs editor at The New Republic magazine, where Sunstein is a contributor. "There is going to be a huge amount of action in the regulatory arena after years of deregulation under President Bush."
Sunstein, who has described himself as "an informal, occasional adviser" to Obama, has accepted the position of administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget and with oversight on environmental, healthcare, and safety issues. Except for a brief stint as a Justice Department lawyer before becoming a professor in 1981, Sunstein has no experience in government or management.
Last year, after 27 years on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School, where he became a friend of Obama's, Sunstein moved to Harvard where was named Felix Frankfurter professor of law and director of a new program on risk regulation. In July, he married Samantha Power, a public policy professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and until she made some disparaging comments about Hillary Clinton, a foreign policy adviser to Obama's campaign.
Sunstein declined to be interviewed, but confirmed in an email to Reuters today that he had accepted the job.
He lists 454 publications, including more than a dozen books in the past 18 years, on his Harvard web page.
Last year, he co-wrote, with economist Richard Thaler, "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness." The book argues that businesses and government can encourage individuals to make better decisions without impinging on their freedom through what is called "choice architecture." An often-cited example is the way businesses can encourage employees to save by automatically enrolling new hires in 401(k) retirement savings plans and allowing them an option to withdraw -- rather than just give them the option of signing up.
In an earlier paper, they called it "libertarian paternalism," writing: "It is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice."
That is consistent with Sunstein's evolution as a scholar, said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague at the University of Chicago.
"He views himself as a policy wonk and when he began he was heavily into legal doctrine and theory," said Hutchinson, who joined the Chicago law school faculty the same year as Sunstein. "But the more he stayed around Chicago, the more he was influenced by social scientists and began looking at what are the incentives or disincentives that move people to behave in certain ways."
Sunstein is the latest Harvard luminary to join the Obama administration.
Among the prominent Harvard people already on board is the university's former president, Lawrence Summers, who will be Obama's top economic policy adviser. Barack Obama, of course, is a Harvard Law grad.
In an interview that aired Wednesday night on CNBC, Obama was asked about having "a lot of big Harvard brains around him" and about parallels with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and how the "best and the brightest," many from Harvard, sunk the United States into the Vietnam quagmire.
Obama replied, tongue-in-cheek, "You've got to watch out for those Harvard guys. They'll get you every time."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.