After more than two years in the Obama administration, Yale political science lecturer Sean Smith has given up spinning policy to teach it.
Smith, who left the University in 2007 to join then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and ultimately serve as a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, has returned to Yale — and these experiences will figure prominently in a new lecture and seminar on press and policy that he will teach this year.
As a liaison between the Department of Homeland Security and national media and in charge of about 300 public affairs officers, Smith said that he gained an appreciation for the ability of the press to shape public policy.
“It’s a blurry line between [press and policy].” he said. “When reporters are calling and you have a formulate a response to a media inquiry, oftentimes by doing that, you are creating policy for the department because you are making it public — in some cases, for the very first time.”
Smith’s involvement in Obama’s campaign began Dec. 25, 2007, when a friend who was serving as communications director for Obama’s New Hampshire primary bid asked him to join the effort. Previously, Smith had worked on Sen. John Kerry’s ’66 presidential campaign in 2004 and Joseph Lieberman’s ’64 LAW ’67 Senate primary bid in 2006. His “Modern Political Campaigns” course at Yale, which he taught in 2006 and 2007, was based in part on those political experiences.
Smith decided to travel to New Hampshire to volunteer, and was impressed by the Obama campaign.
“I went up there and got hooked on Obama,” Smith said. “At that point I was definitely intrigued, and I wanted to help.”
Obama lost in New Hampshire, effectively extending the primary contest, and throughout the spring, Smith volunteered for three other primary efforts in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. After Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, Smith formally joined the campaign as the communications director for Pennsylvania heading into the general election, while his wife, professor Susan Hyde, remained at Yale to continue teaching political science.
After the election, Smith said that he was unsure of his next step.
“I didn’t do the campaign because I was looking to get my ticket punched to Washington and join the administration,” he said.
He was soon asked to serve on a team helping to prepare prospective Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano — then governor of Arizona — for her confirmation hearings. Smith said he accepted the offer in part because the job would allow him to contribute to the Obama administration without any long-term commitment.
Napolitano was confirmed Jan. 20, 2009, but Smith decided to stay put in Washington when the White House offered him a job as assistant secretary for public affairs.
After more than two years at Homeland Security, Smith said, he was ready to return to his “real life” at Yale, in part because of the challenge of living away from his wife.
“I felt satisfied with the contribution that I made and that I did a lot over those two years,” he said. “I felt good that if I walked away that I had achieved something.”
In April 2011, Smith returned to Yale. He said his goal at the time was to share his take on the relationship between media and political strategy in his new Yale College lecture, “Press, Politics & Policy.”
As it is a new course, few of Smith’s 31 students knew about their professor’s experience in the Obama administration; only one of four students interviewed knew about his work before attending the class.
Meghan Murray ’14 was unaware of Smith’s resume when she shopped the course.
“After the first class I knew I was definitely going to continue attending Professor Smith’s lecture,” she said in an email Sunday. “It is fascinating to learn from a teacher who actually experiences everything he teaches.”
Jay Kim ’14 called the course one of the best she has taken at Yale. But not all students shared Kim’s enthusiasm for Smith’s jump from practitioner to professor.
“It’s obvious that teaching is not his main profession,” said Ike Lee ’15, who shopped the class.
Smith said he is unsure what path he will pursue after his current teaching contract expires in spring 2013. He plans to teach a seminar this spring called “National Security & the Media,” and anticipates teaching “Press, Politics & Policy” again next fall during the peak of the 2012 presidential campaign.
At this point, he said he doesn’t anticipate an immediate return to the national political scene.
“Then again, I didn’t anticipate joining the Obama campaign in 2008 either,” he said.
Apart from teaching, Smith serves as the director of capstone projects for the global affairs major. He is also a senior vice president for Porter Novelli, a public relations firm.