Serving Up Economic Advice, With A Smile

Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, appearing on ABC's "This Week"

hide captionAustan Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, appears on ABC's This Week in September. In his job, Goolsbee will have an influence on private discussions within the White House, and he will also be a public ambassador for the administration's economic policies.

Fred Watkins/AP/ABC News

When new monthly unemployment numbers come out Friday, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers will be on all the TV networks talking about the figures. For the first time, that person will be Austan Goolsbee.

Goolsbee has been an economic adviser to Barack Obama since the 2004 Senate race. He was recently promoted to a leadership position in the White House economic team, and he is the only CEA chair ever to have won the title "D.C.'s Funniest Celebrity."

When Goolsbee was a college student 20 years ago, Yale University's parliamentary debate team was one of the best in the country. "We were very nerdy and very, very prone to use large, large words," recalls Slate.com Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick. "Austan was none of those things."

Lithwick was Goolsbee's debate partner in 1990, and she says "in a room full of people, all of whom thought they were the smartest guy in the room, Austan really was the smartest guy in the room. But he neither let you know it, nor, I think, did he know it himself."

As a senior at Yale, Goolsbee was tapped for the group called Skull and Bones. The secret society had admitted only men for more than 150 years. Goolsbee's class tapped women for the first time, and furious alumni changed the locks on the group's headquarters to keep them out. Eventually the students won, and the society has been co-ed ever since.

After college and graduate school, Goolsbee taught economics at the University of Chicago, where he met a law school faculty member named Barack Obama. Both men leaned left at a traditionally conservative school, but colleagues remember Goolsbee as being less interested in political dogma than in evidence-based economic research.

Fellow professor Merle Ericksen describes Goolsbee's classes as the most popular at the business school.

"You can imagine the kinds of things that might be discussed in an economics class," Ericksen says. "Austan has a gift for taking things that are very complex and making them understandable, interesting, applicable, and he's just an entertaining person because he has a great sense of humor."

The Obama administration has eagerly capitalized on that sense of humor. Goolsbee was the first administration official to appear on Comedy Central's Colbert Report.

On the program, the economic adviser used an analogy to describe attacks from conservatives, saying, "Your house is on fire, a guy says, 'Ahhhh, my child!' A guy runs in, takes your kid out, saves their life. Now is not the time to accuse them of kidnapping." To applause and laughter, Goolsbee added, "This is the situation that we face."

Goolsbee eventually struck out on his own with a standup routine that earned him top prize in the annual "D.C.'s Funniest Celebrity" contest. He delivered a monologue that echoed the old "Subliminal Message Man" from Saturday Night Live.

"As we took office, it was an all-star team of economists, and we basically knew what to do. [PANIC!]" he said.

Through the campaign and the presidency, Goolsbee's most frequent sparring opponent has been Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and former economic adviser to John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign. Although they disagree about many policy proposals, Holtz-Eakin says he believes Goolsbee's promotion to CEA chair is "long overdue."

"There are not many people who are smart, who are well-trained, and at the same time can take off the gloves and be extremely populist on the airwaves and the campaign trail, and then win comedian of the year award," said Holtz-Eakin.

In his new job, Goolsbee will have an influence on private discussions within the White House, and he will also be a public ambassador for the administration's economic policies.

Last week in an online video called "White House White Board," Goolsbee explained President Obama's position on rolling back Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, using a big colorful diagram.

"Giving these big red eggs to the highest-income people would cost $700 billion that we would have to borrow," he said.

It was a tutorial and an attack, delivered with a smile.

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