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All the President's Networks

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It turns out that the easiest way to be in the inner circle of Alaska state government is to have been a high school classmate of Sarah Palin. As a result, a former real estate agent ended up heading the State Division of Agriculture, a Mailboxes Etc. franchisee was tapped to manage the state's economic development office, and her oil-worker husband has been a key advisor on the state budget, among other things.

Eye rolling, if not indignation, is a natural response to such news. The very phrase "classmate" used in the context of public service conjures up a collage of old boy networks, nepotism, and incompetence. Consider that the entire Katrina disaster is regarded as satisfactorily explained by the fact that FEMA Director Mike Brown was an old college friend of President Bush's former campaign manager.

But indignation papers over the important role social networks play in how administrations (or the hierarchy around any leader) function. Rather than reacting with shock and dismay to this sort of news, we should be looking instead at who is in those networks, and just as important, how candidates choose to overcome their initial networks' deficiencies.

A close examination of virtually any administration will uncover a tangled skein of personal, political, and professional connections, often reaching back decades. Bill Clinton, who elevated "Friend of Bill" to an actual title (and who tracked them on more than 10,000 index cards), first met his first Labor Secretary when they were sailing to Oxford and his top Russia expert once he got there. And President Clinton was defended in his impeachment trial by the classmate whose apartment he and Hilary sublet when they were at Yale Law School together.

If Barack Obama prevails in November, he'll bring with him a Chicago inner circle more tightly woven than a Persian rug. A surprising number of threads, for example, lead to his basketball coach brother-in-law. One of Obama's major backers, John W. Rogers, played with Craig Robinson on Princeton's varsity basketball team; the child of another, Penny Pritzker, played on a team Robinson coached; and Marty Nesbitt, one of Obama's closest friends and advisors, first entered Obama's orbit via basketball with Robinson as well. (Tying things up further, Nesbitt runs a company owned by Pritzker.) No one will be surprised if these three end up in positions of influence--formal or otherwise--in an Obama administration.

At first glance, Obama's network can seem to suffer from the same hometown insularity that Palin's does. But here we must confront the uncomfortable fact that the networks of Obama and Clinton are qualitatively different due to the role of elite institutions as filtering mechanisms. This isn't to say that highly competitive schools have all of the most talented people, but that a larger percentage of their student bodies will be top-tier candidates. The reason top-tier law firms, for example, hire predominantly from the most selective law schools isn't just because of the quality of the education; it's also because of the screening done by the admissions committees of those schools.

Wasilla High may very well produce some of Alaska's best and brightest. But it's unlikely to produce so many of them that it should naturally become a feeder school for the upper echelons of state government. Governor Palin graduated from Wasilla in 1982; in 2000, only 42 percent of its sophomores tested at grade level for math and only 50 percent tested at grade level for writing.

Does this mean that someone without an elite educational pedigree cannot become vice president? Hardly. But it does mean that they will have to work harder to build a network that provides the talent, ideas and experience necessary to govern effectively. Bill Clinton did this in his own trajectory out of Hope. The emerging evidence on Palin's rise from PTA mom to governor, however, seems to be that instead she's relied on locals like the borough assemblyman she named attorney general.

Does this mean that Ivy Leaguers like Obama need to do little besides populate their campaigns, boards, and administrations with their college networks? Not according to the science of social network analysis. That "old-boy" scenario raises the problem of network redundancy, when everyone in the network has longstanding bonds with everyone else in the network. While this results in a high level of trust, it also is a recipe for the sort of groupthink that can lead an enterprise over a cliff with remarkable efficiency.

Yes, you want a bunch of smart people in the room, but you don't want them to be the same smart people. The best networks--the ones that generate the most innovative thinking, that are able to keep themselves from veering too far in one direction or another--are the ones that link together multiple, overlapping clusters that collectively represent a range of perspectives and resources. The job of the person at the top is to focus the creative tension that results.

Obama seems to intuitively grasp this principle. Abner Mikva, the former Federal judge and Chicago congressman who served as an early Obama mentor recalls that from the beginning Obama would ask, "'Do you know So-and-So?'" and then Mikva would set up a lunch. But Obama went beyond merely expanding his Rolodex. He strategically reached out to people who could connect him with various groups, and then positioned himself as the link between them.

This type of positioning was key to his own meteoric rise--in social network analysis, being the bridge is where the power is: you're the guy who represents access to the other group--but it also happens to result in a framework for the kind of robust information exchange that best advances complex agendas and responds to multifaceted crises.

In the end, we don't just elect people to office. We elect their social networks--and their judgments about using (or not using) those networks to everyone's best advantage. If Sarah Palin ends up being a heartbeat from the presidency, there's no reason she can't steal a page from Obama's playbook in this regard. In fact, we had better hope that she does.

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