Harvard Politics in 2007

In the past few years, attention to politics has shown that if you want to become president of the United

In the past few years, attention to politics has shown that if you want to become president of the United States, don’t go to Harvard. The last legitimate Harvard alumnus to become president was John F. Kennedy ’40; George W. Bush may be a Harvard Business School graduate, but given his membership in Skull and Bones and the ever-popular “Blame Yale” t-shirt, he hardly seems to count as a Harvard alum. As a good portion of the last presidential election was focused on which candidate had the lowest grade point average from Yale, it seems that national politics needs a change of allegiance.

Ba-Rock the Vote!

Harvard is finally making a return to presidential politics in 2007 in the form of Harvard Law School graduate Barack H. Obama, who announced the formation of an exploratory committee last month. The plans for a student group, Harvard Students for Barack Obama, have already been laid. “Well, he’s not officially in the race,” Nathaniel J. Lubin ’09, who is spearheading the group, says. “But if—when—Obama officially enters the primary race, he’ll definitely have a lot of support on the campus.” The details of the group will become official “in the next week or two,” Lubin says. Although students can’t do much until Obama officially declares his intention to run, the Facebook group already has 73 members as of February 2nd.

A serious, mainstream ticket headlined by a minority would be ground breaking for obvious reasons, and Obama’s charisma might mobilize an unusually large population of Harvard students. “He does have a reputation that’s going to bring a lot of people together,” says Harvard College Democrats president Brigit M. Helgen ’08. “From what I’ve seen within the Dems, the people supporting him include the really liberal and the really moderate, even a Republican.”

Obama’s appeal, however, might not cross party lines. “He does very well in front of the camera,” says Harvard Republican Club (HRC) president Jeffery Kwong ’09. “But the HRC wants to go beyond the labels of having a woman or minority candidate, and look at experience and policies. Like in the case of John McCain, who has more experience.”

The Obama-Effect

Obama’s run could have an effect similar to a recent campaign by another Harvard graduate: Deval L. Patrick ’78, who, in the fall of 2006, became the first Democrat in 16 years and the first African-American elected as governor of Massachusetts. “He attracted a lot more college students on campus,” Helgen says. “Out of the people in [Dems-affiliated] Students for Deval Patrick, I would say almost half of them had not been involved with the Dems before, or involved in politics on campus at all.” But while Patrick graduated from Harvard, his supporters say his popularity on campus had much more to do with politics than alumni relations. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact he’s from Harvard, but rather with the fact he aligns with the political ideologies of people on campus,” says Daniel J. Sachs ’07, the press secretary for Students for Deval Patrick. Similarly, the recent emphasis in the national media on Obama’s years at Harvard Law School may not turn out to be a factor on campus.

Beyond Obama

“I wouldn’t say Obama’s Harvard ties have made the potential to really motivate a lot of Harvard students,” says Harvard Dems Events Coordinator Elizabeth B. Hadaway ’09. Case-in-point: Obama’s got a strong rival in Yale Law School alumnus Hillary R. Clinton. The Facebook group “It Takes a Campus: Harvard Students for Hillary,” had 111 students as of February 2nd. “The Dems are really split,” Helgen says, who does not herself know which candidate she will support. “It’s really unusual for me to be so undecided. I don’t know. I like them both.”

“The field is definitely crowded on both sides,” Kwong says. Neither the Harvard Dems nor the HRC officially supports candidates during the primaries, but Kwong notes that members of the HRC are active supporters of Senators John McCain and Sam Brownback, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Kwong himself has high hopes for Condoleezza Rice: “I think she’s someone we would have to look at. I mean, she’s black and a woman, better than Obama and Clinton combined. I think she would be very attractive to the Harvard community.” Attractive, even without the Harvard degree.

So perhaps the “Vote for Obama, put Harvard back in the White House!” slogan won’t unify the campus this year. But even if Harvard is absent from national politics in the coming years, debate and dialogue over national politics will be big on campus in 2007.