Sunstein will head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a little-known body that oversees new agency regulations that largely fell by the way-side as the Bush administration advanced a deregulatory agenda.
During the presidential contest, Obama campaigned on the promise to reform a regulatory system that he claimed was partly to blame for the current economic crisis.
As regulatory czar, Sunstein will be charged with overseeing the federal government’s regulatory standards in areas like the environment, consumer safety, and health. In addition, Sunstein may also review new regulations to reform the financial services industry.
From 2001 to 2006, the position was held by Harvard professor John D. Graham, the founder of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, who drew fire from environmental and public-safety organizations for his support of deregulation.
“It’s extremely important to have an office that can rationalize the regulatory process,” said Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, a friend of both Obama and Sunstein. “Just an orgy of regulation for regulation’s sake is not what we need right now.”
Sunstein, an academic “superstar” and the most-cited American legal scholar, brings a keen intellect and a deep understanding of the behavioral sciences that will allow him to tailor regulation to human behavior, said Tribe, who employed Obama as a research assistant during his time at law school.
Obama and Sunstein first met on the faculty at the University of Chicago Law School and have forged a close friendship since then. Sunstein, who left Chicago for Harvard last year, advised Obama on legal matters throughout his campaign. In fact, Sunstein met his current wife, Harvard Kennedy School professor Samantha Power, while both were advising the Obama campaign.
Last year, Sunstein co-authored the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” that proposed “choice-architecture,” or the structuring of situations so that individuals make better choices.
Sunstein is expected to bring this behavioral perspective to his new role crafting regulation, Tribe said.
In a brief phone interview, Sunstein, a Boston native, declined to confirm whether he would be appointed head of the regulatory body and would not comment beyond saying, “Wherever I go, I am and shall always be a Boston Red Sox fan.”
Obama, a Law School graduate, has poached top talent from Harvard in recent weeks; Sunstein is the fifth Harvard academic to depart for Washington.
Law School Dean Elena Kagan is in line to become Obama’s solicitor general, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department; former University President Lawrence H. Summers will lead his National Economic Council; Harvard Kennedy School professor John P. Holdren, an expert on climate change, will lead the administration’s science policy; and geneticist Eric S. Lander, the head of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, will chair Obama’s science and technology advisory council.
—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.