Kagan has many friends connected to the Obama administration. She served as a law clerk to Obama legal adviser and former federal judge Abner Mikva and later as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall. While she was at the University of Chicago, she took on an assignment as special counsel to then-Sen. Joe Biden, who was conducting the confirmation hearings of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In 1995, she took a job in the Clinton White House serving as associate counsel to the president and then deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. She was nominated by Clinton to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but the nomination stalled in the Senate.
In 2003, Harvard's then-President Larry Summers, who is now director of the White House National Economic Council, named her dean of Harvard Law School.
At Harvard, she pulled off an academic coup by persuading legal scholar Cass Sunstein to leave the University of Chicago for a position at Harvard. Sunstein now works for the Obama administration. She also was widely praised for her pragmatism and her ability to bridge ideological divides between faculty members and the student body.
"She has an unusual brilliance and well developed intra-personal skills," said her friend Carol Steiker, a former Harvard Law School colleague, adding, "and she works harder than anyone I know. She pours her heart and her soul into whatever she does."
Kagan has made clear her distaste for one controversial topic: the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, which bans homosexuals and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces.
She has called the position "a profound wrong." She confronted the issue as dean of Harvard Law School when she initially objected to the presence of military recruiters on campus because she believed "don't ask don't tell" violated the school's anti-discrimination policy.
But she explained later in an e-mail to faculty and students that she was obliged under federal law to allow the military recruiters on campus or lose government funding. Other law schools eventually took the issue to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the government's position.
But not all critics of Kagan are conservative. Some liberal commentators hoped Obama, with a strong majority in the Senate, might choose a candidate with a solidly liberal track record. Before her nomination was announced, Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon, questioned why Kagan hadn't been more vocal during the Bush administration in criticizing the government's broad claims of executive power:
"Where was Elena Kagan during all of this?" Greenwald wrote. "Why is it seemingly impossible to find even a single utterance from her during the last decade regarding the radical theories of executive power the Bush administration invoked to commit grave crimes and other abuses? It's possible that she said something at some point, but many hours of research (and public inquiries) have revealed nothing -- other than when she endorsed the core Bush template during her solicitor general confirmation hearing. "