Joe Biden has had a difficult first year as president. In areas as disparate as foreign policy, economic progress, managing the pandemic and advancing legislation, he has low approval ratings — and now even some of his closest allies are pushing for an internal shake-up.
In his recent news conference, President Biden recognized the need to change his problematic trajectory and noted one change he planned to make: connecting with more historians and academics to seek "more input" and "more information."
Biden is not the first president to seek the advice of intellectuals. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have done the same. Across the political spectrum, a number of presidents have found that bringing on board a full-time prominent thinker can help distill a governing ideology and agenda to White House staffers and the American people.
In the 1930s, Roosevelt brought in his famous "brain trust" to develop policies at the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and State. Yet the trustors were a mixed blessing politically, because at the time intellectuals and the very idea of expertise were only starting to gain public credibility.
This changed in the postwar period as intellectuals gained in stature from their service in advancing national security. Many intellectuals, such as Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., served in the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — during World War II. In addition, the Soviets beating the United States into space with Sputnik in 1957 highlighted the need for intellectuals' brainpower to help America win the Cold War.
John F. Kennedy's short-lived presidency epitomized this shift. In his 1960 run for president, Kennedy actively cultivated intellectuals, crafting an image of himself — a Pulitzer Prize-winning author — as the candidate for the smart set. The Kennedy campaign even had an Academic Advising Committee, a group of professors from elite universities, brought together by speechwriter Ted Sorensen, that gathered both policy proposals and endorsements from top academics. Washington Post reporter Thomas Winship joked in 1959 that Kennedy stood "on the verge of 'owning' a remarkable segment of New England's university and industrial brain power — lock, stock, and speechwriting pad."
Kennedy continued this effort as president, bringing in multiple intellectuals to serve in his administration, including economist John Kenneth Galbraith as ambassador to India and Schlesinger as the first full-time intellectual in residence in the White House. Schlesinger did relatively little policy work in the White House, but he did serve Kennedy as a cultural adviser, liaison to the academic world and a one-man liberal idea factory. His presence lent cultural cachet to the presidency, helping to create the image of "Camelot" — a Utopian vision of his short-lived presidency — that persisted for decades after Kennedy was assassinated.
In the late 1960s, Richard M. Nixon sought an intellectual to give voice to his feelings about the "silent majority" of Americans who eschewed the various protest movements and attendant social changes of the era. To do this, Nixon crossed party lines to hire Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor who had served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but was emerging as a critic of extreme liberalism.
Nixon read Moynihan's writings and brought him into the White House, where he wrote memos decrying radical protesters, biased media and even Leonard Bernstein's legendary Black Panthers fundraiser at his Manhattan apartment. In one memo, Moynihan described a protest directed at his own house, telling the president: "Yesterday in Cambridge the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] announced that my house would be burned during the night. The University asked my family to 'evacuate' and they, in effect, went into hiding."
Moynihan's memos distilled Nixon's beliefs about a fracturing society and provided extra validation for those views because they came from someone in the opposing party. Moynihan also urged Nixon to develop his own cadre of conservative thinkers so that subsequent Republican presidents could bring in intellectuals from their own party to serve in a Moynihan-type role.
While Nixon never hired his own Republican intellectual, the idea gained purchase throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Nixon's replacement, Gerald Ford, brought in the conservative academic Robert Goldwin as his own White House intellectual, and Goldwin regularly consulted with top conservative thinkers such as Irving Kristol and Thomas Sowell.
When Goldwin left the White House, he went back not to academia, but to the increasingly influential American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that had been established in 1943. Goldwin's move symbolized the movement of conservative intellectuals away from academia and toward the think tank world.
Ronald Reagan benefited from this expanding conservative intelligentsia, with Hoover Institution economist Martin Anderson compiling a group of experts to endorse Reagan's candidacy and help develop policy proposals. The group had 500 members, many from the growing world of conservative think tanks and policy institutes, including 17 from the Hoover Institution alone. Others who came from academia, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, who became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and William Bennett, who served as Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and then as education secretary, would go to the think tank world after their service in the administration.
Reagan also brought in Anderson to serve as an in-house adviser, ensuring that his administration stayed true to the conservative vision on which he had run. When Attorney General William French Smith proposed a national ID card, Anderson deftly and quickly kiboshed the idea because it offended his libertarian tendencies. Anderson only stayed for a year, but the many thinkers he recruited continued to populate the administration throughout Reagan's two terms.
These intellectuals served an important purpose. They helped distill their presidents' visions so that the American people had a sense of what the administrations stood for. They also served as important ambassadors to the intellectual community, helping to leverage other intellectual voices in support of the president's vision.
Other presidents have failed to hire a White House intellectual to their detriment. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush chose not to hire in-house intellectuals and found that they lacked the backing of their party's respective intellectuals when things went poorly in their presidencies. In Bush's case, he failed to cultivate conservative intellectuals, and in some cases his team actively alienated them. During his transition, a Bush official told The Washington Post: "Our people don't have agendas. They have mortgages" — a clear dig at the outgoing Reagan team. When Bush violated his "read my lips" pledge and raised taxes, he further alienated conservatives, and then lacked an intellectual to make the case to conservatives in the aftermath.
Biden does not have any full-time intellectuals as staff. The closest thing he has is the popular historian Jon Meacham — someone perhaps pushing him to be more boldly liberal than Biden professed to be as a senator or candidate.
But in-house intellectuals have aided presidents historically by helping them stay focused on a governing philosophy promised during the campaign. An in-house thinker, along the model of previous White House intellectuals, can ask the questions that encourage Biden to return to the moderate vision on which he ran. In the best case, this special adviser could articulate that vision to key outside amplifiers, and then to the American people, which could help Biden turn around his troubled presidency.