From Brookings Institution to AEI: Exploring Washington’s Top Public Policy Think Tanks


Ever wonder where all of the political appointees go after they leave an administration? Many of them end up at one of Washington’s numerous public policy think tanks. 

Private public policy think tanks have been around Washington for almost a century, contributing to debate and discussion on issues like foreign affairs, national security, economics, and poverty, to name a few. Some think tanks are more political than others; some try to be bipartisan. But they all welcome experts who have served in government or send their experts off to government. They also churn out studies, host talks, and publish books in an effort to contribute to public policy in Washington and across the country and the world. Here’s a look at a few of Washington’s brain trusts:

 1.      The Brookings Institution


The Brookings Institution is perhaps the gold standard for think tanks in Washington. It was started in 1916 as “the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy issues.” It also houses the Saban Center for Middle East Policy which it started in 2002. Strobe Talbot, a deputy secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton, is its president. The United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Susan Rice, was formerly at Brookings. Though it has a left-of-center reputation, Kenneth Duberstein, a former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, is on its Board of Trustees.

 2.      The Council on Foreign Relations


Though the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) was started in New York in 1921, it also has a Washington office. It is considered the United States’ most influential foreign-policy think tank. It considers itself an “independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher.” It publishes the hugely influential Foreign Affairs, a bimonthly foreign policy bible. Its membership has a range of personalities from former Secretary of State and former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, NBC News Anchor Brian Williams, Angelina Jolie, and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Richard Rubin.

3.      The Center for American Progress


The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think thank, was founded in 2003 by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton. CAP has quickly become an influential think tank in Washington. It prides itself on its dedication “to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action.” Its current president and chief executive officer, Neera Tanden, was formerly with the Obama and Clinton administrations, as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaigns. Melody Barnes, who was formerly President Obama’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council, was previously CAP’s Executive vice president for policy.

4.      The Heritage Foundation


The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was founded in 1973. It defines its mission as formulating and promoting “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” It is hugely influential in advancing conservative ideas. Incidentally, the Heritage Foundation was the original brain child behind the individual mandate that is central to President Obama’s health care law that is opposed by most conservatives. David Addington, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, is currently the vice president for domestic & economic policy at Heritage. Its Board of Trustees in includes Steve Forbes.

5.      The American Enterprise Institute


The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), another conservative think tank, was started in 1943. It, along with the Heritage Foundation, was a co-host for the recent Republican primary debate on national security. AEI had a strong influence in the staffing of the George W. Bush administration, and former Vice President Dick Cheney used the think tank as the forum to defend the Bush administration's national security policies in a 2009 speech. Current visiting scholars include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch member of parliament, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

6.      The Center for New American Security


The Center for New American Security (CNAS) is relatively new on the Washington think tank scene. It was established in 2007 by co-founders Michèle Flournoy and Kurt M. Campbell, and it specializes in U.S.national security issues. Flournoy is currently the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Campell is the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Its former Director of External Relations, Price Floyd, is now the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Public Affairs. The Washington Post has said “When CNAS talks, people listen.”


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