MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, young Jewish voters schlep to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama. Why? It's a tough sell. First, President Bush is huddling with economic policy makers to come up with new ways to get his bailout package through Congress. The spotlight on all this has been on treasury secretary Henry Paulson but right beside him is FED chairman Ben Bernanke. NPR's Tovia Smith has this profile.
TOVIA SMITH: From the time he started studying economics, friends say Ben Bernanke was immediately fascinated by the great depression. He spent some three decades at Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Princeton analyzing and writing about it with special focus on how a credit crunch can cause a broader economic collapse and how government's response can help or hurt. Then friends say, Bernanke got a little antsy in academia and wanted to apply what he'd learned.
Professor MARK GERTLER (Economics, NYU): There's no small irony here. I mean, little did he know.
SMITH: NYU economics professor Mark Gertler says his friend and co-author Ben Bernanke never could have imagined dealing with this doozy of a crisis but Gertler says it's not surprising that this market oriented economist is driving the largest government intervention in modern history. Gertler says Bernanke is above all a pragmatist.
Professor GERTLER: I know it sounds hard to believe but I mean, most people including me didn't realize he was a Republican, you know he's really kind of a technocrat in the true essence. I mean, I don't want to use the word plumber but you know, closer to that in an ideologue.
SMITH: Serious, studious and sometimes shy. The 54-year old Bernanke is also known for his calm demeanor. In deed, he didn't quite sound like a guy prescribing emergency measures to try to stave off a worldwide financial meltdown when he was getting grilled by members of Congress like Democrat Lloyd Doggett.
Representative LLOYD DOGGETT (Congressman, Texas): These are assets you're acquiring because we've told they're toxic, so that's why we're having the taxpayer buy them.
Mr. BEN BERNANKE(Federal Reserve Chairman): Well, the objective would be to buy them at prices that are consistent with their economic value in a more normal market. The other comment, if I may very quickly surely is…
Economist KEN ROGOFF: When I watched Ben Bernanke sitting there, you know calmly answering these tough, trappy questions hour after hour. It's really amazing.
SMITH: Harvard economist Ken Rogoff says his old friend and Princeton colleague was never one to get sucked into the politics or the passion of the moment. Another colleague, Princeton economist Burton Malkiel says it's a skill Bernanke displayed even as chair of Princeton's often contentious economics department.
Mr. BURTON MALKIEL (Economist, Princeton): Sometimes there would be huge disputes in faculty meetings with a lot of prima donnas around and in some sense kinds of problems you have dealing with Congress are not so different from dealing with the number of prima donna faculty members.
SMITH: Bernanke has been criticized by some who say he was not bold or quick enough in responding to the developing crisis. Ethan Harris, an economist who wrote a book on Bernanke says the FED chief has had to adapt his naturally inclusive congenial management style since he took office.
Mr. ETHAN HARRIS (Economist): In the initial stages he was working very hard to have a consensus forming process. And it created a little bit of problems for the FED's seemed to be kind of behind the curve and wasn't really being clear about just how risky events were. Over time, I think Bernanke has I think realized that you know, in a crisis, you know decisive action is important, you don't want the FED to turn into a debating society when events are very fast.
SMITH: Other critiques have found fault in Bernanke's lack of real world business experience. But to many, the fact that a FED chief's roots are more Main Street than Wall Street is a plus. Bernanke grew up in a small town in South Carolina, his parents had to be convinced to let him go to Harvard. And his wife has spent a career as an inner city school teacher.
Professor JEREMY BULOW (Economics, Stanford): This is somebody whose friends are not Wall Street tycoons.
SMITH: Stanford economics professor Jeremy Bulow met Bernanke in grad school.
Professor BULOW: I think that is the kind of person who's not going to lose too much sleep worrying about the fact that some guy who might have had a $100 million a year ago is down to his last 20 million today. His normal inclination I think, it's fair to say would be to help the average American.
SMITH: In deed to some, Bernanke might be one of the few with the credibility to actually sell the idea of a $700 billion Wall Street rescue to a skeptical and angry country. The question now is, will his idea work? His career academic is now facing the test of a lifetime. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
BRAND: Stay with us. There's more ahead on NPR's Day to Day.