By Phaedra Tinder
Karen Kornbluh BMC ’85, policy director for Barack Obama and former deputy chief of staff to the Secretary of the Treasury during Bill Clinton’s administration, came to Bryn Mawr last Thursday to deliver the lecture “From Bryn Mawr to Capitol Hill: How Bryn Mawr Influenced My Political Career.” The talk was sponsored by a number of departments, as well as the tri-college Barack Obama student political groups.
Kornbluh began by describing how she first became aware of Obama, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. She explained that at the time, no one had any expectations regarding his speech, and she and her husband indeed did not see it because they took that time to step out of the convention. Looking back, she reflected, “How do you figure out what are the important moments?” She broadened this question to the national level, making the case that now is an important moment to be seized for the presidency, and that despite enormous challenges such as global warming, the War in Iraq, and the economy, “there are signs that we can meet these challenges.”
This then led Kornbluh back to her roots at Bryn Mawr, as she posed the question: “Does Bryn Mawr prepare you to meet these challenges?” To answer this, she provided what she said were three lies and three truths that students learn at Bryn Mawr.
The lies: that you have to be perfect; that the world will always reward based on merit; and that life will “follow a straight linear path from your major to your Grade Point Average to your grad school to your career to your death,” said Kornbluh.
The truths: “You know what you think is true, not just right, but true,” said Kornbluh, because of the quality of the education; if you can succeed at Bryn Mawr, enough hard work will allow you to do anything; and that you can and should make the most of your potential.
Kornbluh described her own career path, from Bryn Mawr, to an internship with Alan Greenspan’s firm, to an M.A. in Public Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, to working at the FCC and discovering the difficulties that exist for mothers in the workplace, to the New American Foundation think tank, where she wrote about and researched family issues in regard to economics and policy, through various government positions until finally becoming Obama’s policy director, an uncommon position for a junior senator to staff.
“I was amazed that he was able to see the things we [Americans] had in common while most of Washington was interested in exploiting the differences,” she said of Obama. Kornbluh went on to describe the effectiveness of this vision, which she said led to a united support for a recent bill to cut car emissions. She also trumpeted his unique understanding of the challenges facing women, recalling an offhand comment he made one day. “The real question of women’s issues is whether we will give our daughters the same opportunities as we give our sons,” said Kornbluh, quoting Obama.
Following the talk, there was a question-and-answer session in which audience members asked questions ranging from transitions to the real world to explanations of Obama’s policies. In regard to the latter, Kornbluh said they were the “hardest questions I’ve ever received” regarding Obama’s policies, and again trumpeted this as an indication of Bryn Mawr’s strengths.
Student reactions to the talk were tentatively positive. “I’m proud to see how far a Bryn Mawr alum has gone,” said Sarah Khasawinah ’09, expressing a sentiment shared by many students. Rachel Townsend ’09 said this was the primary reason she decided to attend. “I mostly decided to come because I wanted to hear an alum’s perspective on being from Bryn Mawr and going into politics,” said Townsend. “It was fun to hear things that are true, and that it’s not as hard as it seems.”
Other students felt somewhat disappointed that the talk didn’t focus more on Obama’s policies. “While it was inspiring to hear a Bryn Mawr alum discuss how Bryn Mawr was a prominent aspect of her success, I felt that the talk focused more on this than on Obama’s policies and that I could have gotten a more in-depth understanding from the website,” said Dinu Ahmed ’08. Ahmed noted the recent prevalence of stump speakers for Hillary Clinton in the bi-college community, such as America Ferrera and Madeline Albright, and the apparent increase in student support for Clinton following these speakers. She said she hoped students would make informed choices based upon the candidates’ political positions.