RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Obama's economic team has been undergoing a shakeup, and one of the people you can expect to see more of is Austan Goolsbee. He's been an advisor to Barack Obama since he ran for the Senate back in 2004. Goolsbee was recently promoted to chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers.
NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has this profile of the man once received the somewhat dubious title of DC's Funniest Celebrity.
ARI SHAPIRO: Twenty years ago, Yale University's Parliamentary Debate team was one of the best in the country.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Supreme Court Correspondent, Slate.com): We were very nerdy and very, very prone to use large, large words. Austan was none of those things.
SHAPIRO: This is Dahlia Lithwick. Today, she's Supreme Court correspondent for Slate.com. But in 1990, she was Austan Goolsbee's debate partner.
Ms. LITHWICK: 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.
SHAPIRO: As a senior in college, Goolsbee was tapped for the group called Skull and Bones. The secret society had only admitted men for more than 150 years. Goolsbee's class tapped women for the first time. Furious alumni changed the locks on the group's headquarters to keep them out, but 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, which is where he met Barack Obama. Both men leaned left at a traditionally conservative school. But Goolsbee's colleagues say he was more interested in evidence-based economic research than political dogma. Fellow professor Merle Ericksen says Goolsbee's classes were always the most popular at the business school.
Professor MERLE ERICKSEN: If you can imagine the kinds of things that might be discussed in an economics class, Austan has a gift for taking things that are very complex and making them understandable, interesting, applicable, and he just is an entertaining person 'cause he has a great sense of humor as well.
SHAPIRO: The Obama Administration has eagerly capitalized on that sense of humor.
Mr. STEVEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Now, you are the very first actual Obama, you know, person - White House person, that we've had on.
SHAPIRO: First, the White House sent Goolsbee to Steven Colbert, where the economic advisor used this analogy to describe attacks from conservatives.
Mr. AUSTAN GOOLSBEE (Chairman, President's Council of Economic Advisers): Your house is on fire. Guy is, ah, my child. The guy runs in, takes your kid out, saves their life. Now is not the time to accuse them of kidnapping. This is the situation that we face.
(Soundbite of applause)
SHAPIRO: Then Goolsbee struck out on his own with a standup routine that earned him top prize in the annual DC's Funniest Celebrity contest. He did a bit that echoed the old Subliminal Message Man sketch from "Saturday Night Live."
Mr. GOOLSBEE: As we took office, you know, it was an all-star team of economists and we basically knew what to do - panic. What we were coming in, is let's react the right way when things happen.
(Soundbite of scream)
Mr. GOOLSBEE: Let's just sort it out and start from the fundamentals - how do we throw money at this problem. And the...
SHAPIRO: Through the campaign and the presidency, Goolsbee's most frequent sparring opponent has been Douglas Holtz-Eakin. He's President of the American Action Forum, and he was economic advisor to John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign. Even though they disagree on many policy areas, Holtz-Eakin believes Goolsbee's promotion will serve the administration well.
Mr. DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN (President, American Action Forum): Look, I mean, 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. So, it's a really impressive combination.
SHAPIRO: As Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Goolsbee will have an influence on private discussions within the White House, and he'll also be a public ambassador for the administration's economic policies. Last week, in an online video called "White House Whiteboard," he explained President Obama's position on rolling back Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy using a big colorful diagram.
Mr. GOOLSBEE: Giving these big red eggs to the very high income people would cost $700 billion that we would have to borrow to give it.
SHAPIRO: It was a tutorial, and an attack - delivered with a smile.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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