Melody Barnes to examine presidential impact on everyday life


Melody Barnes, the founding executive director of the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, will be drawing upon her decades of experience in policy and public service for a discussion about the roles the president and the executive branch play in Americans’ everyday lives.

Barnes will be speaking at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, the fourth speaker for this week’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “The Evolution of the Modern Presidency.”

Barnes, along with Friday’s lecturer David French, is an inaugural recipient of the Chautauqua Perry Fellowship in Democracy. The fellowship, which will span 15 months, was designed with one goal in mind: provide fellows with the resources they need to expand citizen engagement in democratic processes in the United States. 

According to Jordan Steves, the Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, the Perry Fellowship is the Institution’s way of “doubling down on being a place … that is dedicated to the work of democracy and advancing democratic ideals and engaging the public in that work.”

“We’ve partnered with two very prominent people who are among the most outspoken voices on behalf of democracy in their respective arenas … to shape an experience that both engages our Chautauqua audience and ultimately results in a tangible work product that people can learn from,” Steves said.

Barnes’ 25 years spent in public service were a key factor in her being selected for the fellowship. She started her career at a law firm in New York before serving as chief counsel to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, then later as executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress. From 2009 to 2012, Barnes served in the Obama White House as a domestic policy adviser and as the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. In 2021, she became the inaugural executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia, where she is also a professor.

“We’re excited to partner with someone who leads another institution that is dedicated to advancing the work of democracy,” Steves said.

Today marks Barnes’ first appearance on the Amp stage, where she will discuss the role the presidency plays in the day-to-day lives of Americans, and the ways in which the president and those who work with them wield the power of the executive branch.

And as she has explained in the past, the best leaders are reliant on the skills of the people they surround themselves with.

“When I think about leadership, I think about individuals who are bringing their best skills, whatever they might be,” Barnes said in a 2023 interview on PBS’ “Aaron Harber Show.” “It might be behind-the-scenes organizing, it might be the person that helps to set the vision, but doing that in collaboration with others and moving toward that common goal, that common set of objectives, so that you can accomplish that along with others who also consider those objectives to be important and in furtherance of something typically that’s larger than yourself.”

Tags : Karsh Institute of DemocracyMelody BarnesMorning Lecture PreviewUniversity of VirginiaWhite HouseWhite House Domestic Policy Council

The author Jeremy Kohler