The president is holding an important briefing with her executive staff. She’s been concerned for years about the achievement gap facing students in urban and rural school districts and is trying to pass a new education reform bill. Her brother-in-law was a high school dropout, so the issue is personal to her.
She also received word that a justice is retiring from the Supreme Court and seeks the input of her staff to ensure she’s making the most of a legacy opportunity, managing her political capital and keeping the rest of her agenda on track.
At the same time, the president is preparing to attend an international meeting and must be ready to avoid a confrontation with other heads of state. She asks her staff what she can learn from the past.
Playing roles within a fictional White House, University of Virginia law students are working through these issues and more in a new policy simulation course taught by School of Law Distinguished Fellow Melody Barnes, who worked for the Obama administration. (Barnes is concurrently a senior fellow and Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at UVA’s Miller Center.)
In her two-credit Law School course, “The U.S. President and Policymaking: History, Theory and Simulation,” Barnes acts as a fictional U.S. president. Each student in her class is assigned a different role as part of her White House staff or Cabinet, including chief of staff, White House counsel, communications director and secretary of education.
In developing the course, she drew from the “countless” challenges she has experienced in her career, including during her White House tenure as assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, from January 2009 to January 2012.
Previously, she worked in other high-profile jobs focused on legislative policy, including as executive vice president at the Center for American Progress and as chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“People talk about ‘ripped from the headlines,’” Barnes said. “With this course, I was ripping from the experiences I had from over 20 years of working in Washington.”
The course, which is being offered again this spring, addresses a different scenario or theme each week to expose students to the wide range of conflicts they would deal with while working in the White House.
“Often what you get from just reading texts or lectures can feel very one-dimensional, and that’s the last thing that policy is,” said Barnes, who feels the experiential learning component is key to understanding the real policymaking process.
In addition to research and analysis, a large part of policymaking involves thinking creatively and in the moment, observing human nature and relationships and appreciating diverse positions, she said. Students must collaborate. The answers aren’t always easy.
“I had a colleague in the White House who used to say that by the time issues get to our desks, all the easy answers are gone,” Barnes said. “You still have to move forward and make the best decisions with the information in front of you and the resources available.”
Second-year law student Kendall Burchard, who took on the role of White House communications director during the simulation, said the course has given her a newfound respect for the time and effort that goes into legislative accomplishments.
“The framers very purposely did not make the legislative process easy,” she said. “Time and time again, the simulation has shown that policymaking extends far past the four corners of the resulting legislation, and no part of the construction, proposal and eventual passage or failure of that policy is insignificant.”
Students started the semester by learning the personal history and political ideologies of the fictional President Barnes and the history of the executive branch to see the how the role of the president has evolved.
Each class simulation is preceded by a guest lecture and discussion section led by a range of speakers with experience in the policymaking process across the political spectrum.
Guest speakers have included Chris Lu, assistant to Obama, White House Cabinet secretary and deputy secretary of labor; Mary Kate Cary, White House speechwriter for George H.W. Bush; Carmel Martin, assistant secretary at the Department of Education under Obama; Brian Jones, general counsel at the Department of Education for George W. Bush; Kevin Madden, senior adviser and spokesman to Mitt Romney; and William Antholis, director of international economic affairs during the Clinton administration. Lu and Cary, senior fellows, and Antholis, as director, are affiliated with the Miller Center.
“The guest speakers have sincerely enriched our experience,” Burchard said. “It’s one thing to read about how the Affordable Care Act was passed – it’s another thing entirely to have President Obama’s former legislative director recounting the private strategy meetings and the personal and professional frustrations and triumphs that occurred behind the scenes.”
Alexander Hoffarth, a third-year law student, agreed. “The guest speakers have been the best part of this course,” he said. He noted that the speakers have consisted of an even number of Democrats and Republicans.
“It may sound simple, but it’s an essential reminder of the importance of listening to others with whom we may disagree and building relationships that transcend political disagreement.”
The class culminated with a formal recommendation to the president on how to move her education agenda forward. Whether or not her students decide to go into positions in government, Barnes hopes students walk away from the class with an understanding of the complexity of the issues, as well as the commonality and shared aspirations of many policymakers.
“To be an effective citizen, it is so important to be analytical, understand how our government works and ask questions of it,” Barnes said. “I am hopeful that my students will bring the knowledge of this course into their thinking and be more effective in the jobs they go on to do.”