The Pressures Of Working In The White House

The announced departure of Larry Summers as President Obama's chief economic adviser means that after two years, most of the White House economic team is gone. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Greg Mankiw, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers about the pressures of working for the commander in chief.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

While many congressional Democrats are facing the likelihood theyll soon be forced out of their jobs, a number of White House insiders are calling it quits voluntarily. The latest high-profile departure from the Obama administration is Lawrence Summers, the head of the National Economic Council. He was preceded by budget chief Peter Orszag, and Christina Romer, who was chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors.

All of which got us wondering about just how tough life is inside an embattled White House, and what this kind of turnover means, bad or good, for a president who is not halfway through his term.

So we've called upon Gregory Mankiw who was chairman of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisors from 2003 to 2005, now a professor of economics at Harvard, an author and a blogger. Welcome to the program.

Professor GREGORY MANKIW (Former Chairman, Council of Economic Advisors): It's nice to be with you.

SIEGEL: And take us inside the White House. Is it possible, do you think, to live that life for more than a year and a half or two years, that seems to be pretty standard these days?

Prof. MANKIW: Well, it's a great honor to be - to work for any president. But there's no question those kinds of jobs take a big toll on ones personal life. They tend to be very long hours and your schedule is not really your own; just meetings being called all the time at short notice. So compared to being, say, a Harvard professor, it's a job where you lose a lot of autonomy and you get a lot of stress in your life.

SIEGEL: But did you ever miss that adrenaline of working at the White House and being plugged into the biggest questions the White House was facing?

Prof. MANKIW: Oh, to some extent. And it was a really exhilarating experience and looking back, Im sure throughout my life it'll be a very important two years of my career. But day to day, I probably have more fun hanging out with my family and hanging out with my students at Harvard than I did at the White House.

SIEGEL: You're saying we really should believe people when they say I want to spend more time with my family.

Prof. MANKIW: I think sometimes it's actually true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Okay. Larry Summers described at least one of his reasons for leaving in an email to CNN's Dan Lothian. He wrote: Harvard two-year rule. Explain.

Prof. MANKIW: Well, Harvard has a rule that gives people two years of leave for public service. And thats exactly the rule that I invoked when I went down to work for George Bush. And I stayed exactly two years. And then Larry looks like he's going to be staying almost exactly two years. After two years, Harvard says either you come back and become a professor again or you have to resign your tenured position. And perhaps Larry decided that being a professor looks pretty attractive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, even after or despite a rocky tenure as Harvard's president, would Larry Summers really face the risk of losing his position at Harvard, if he'd stayed over two years?

Prof. MANKIW: Well, Larry is well-loved at Harvard. But there's this rule and everyone has to face the rule, and he'd probably have to resign. In fact, I believe he did resign back when he worked for the Clinton administration for more than two years. So then he was eventually hired back.

Another question is what if Larry came back, say, at age 60 or something in few years, if he stayed into the Obama administration, whether Harvard would hire him back. They might well but they might not. I mean, these are tough economic times. I mean, there would be a debate as with any appointment of scholar.

SIEGEL: Well, in terms of the content of Obama administration economic policy, take away Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, does it signal that there might be some change in thinking in the Obama White House, as you see it?

Prof. MANKIW: Maybe but probably not. I mean, I think ultimately it's the president's personal philosophy thats going to set the direction for policy; whether it's in the economy or foreign policy or social policy. So I dont think any of these personnel are going to make a fundamental change in the course of economic policy.

SIEGEL: Do you think from the point of view of a president that a high-profile departure, oh, might bring some fresh blood in on the scene, some new faces might, you know, be tonic in some way?

Prof. MANKIW: Oh, it can. But I think the team they had was really a terrific team. I mean, they're distinctly more liberal than I am in their personal politics. But the quality of people they had for the first two years was really terrific. And Im sure the president is going to miss some of them.

SIEGEL: I gather youve communicated to Larry Summers already...

Prof. MANKIW: Well, I've actually already sent him an email inviting him to be a guest lecturer at my course. I teach EC10, which is the introductory economics course at Harvard. And, Larry, when he was here at Harvard, would give you a guest lecture every year and he was very popular among students. He always gave great lectures.

And as soon as I heard he was leaving the White House, say, well, thats bad news for the country but it's good news for EC10. And so I sent him an email inviting him to give a guest lecture this spring.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Mankiw, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Prof. MANKIW: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Thats Gregory Mankiw who was chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors for two years, from 2003 to 2005, now professor of economics at Harvard.

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