Replacing Christina Romer, Obama should look past the usual economic experts

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, August 15, 2010

With Christina Romer stepping down as chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, President Obama is in the market for a new econ-geek to whisper in his ear about issues from jobs to Wall Street to global trade. He is reportedly considering a couple of usual-suspect types: Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor already on the three-member council, and Laura Tyson, who chaired the council in the Clinton White House.

The council chairmanship has traditionally been populated by academic economists, but how about drawing a chair from the private sector or even the news media? Washington Post business reporter Frank Ahrens suggests five candidates who may not be on Obama's radar -- but should be.

Pepsi's Indra Nooyi is the best big-time chief executive you've never heard of. While her academic bona fides (master's degree from the Yale School of Management) will satisfy the pointy-heads, more important, she knows real-world business and economics. Nooyi was a product manager at Johnson & Johnson and worked at Motorola before joining PepsiCo in 1994. She smartly got Pepsi out of the restaurant business, spinning off its KFC and Taco Bell joints, and doubled-down on beverages, buying Tropicana and Gatorade. Under her leadership, PepsiCo's profits have doubled. As a native Indian, she is deeply familiar with world's largest democratic economy -- one that really wants to play ball with Washington.

Want someone with the deepest feel for the health and desires of the American consumer? You won't do better than James Sinegal, co-founder and chief executive of Costco. This son of a steelworker started as a discount-store bagger and worked his way up. He founded Costco in 1983 and has gotten high marks as a manager and employer. He believes in long-term business growth.

Outside the academic world, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is best known for his New York Times columns arguing that the $787 billion, debt-busting stimulus bill was not enough, so even moderate Democrats -- not to mention conservatives -- might lose their minds with this pick. But maybe it's time for Krugman to put his money where his mouth is. You think government needs to spend more to get us out of this funk? Okay, Paul. Here's the key to the car.

Ford chief executive Alan Mulally gets points right off the bat because his automaker was the only one of Detroit's Big Three to not take a government bailout. He has been rewarded with increased market share during the recession. He's also an engineer, which means he thinks rationally. Mulally was a top exec at Boeing before taking over Ford in 2006. Even though he had never run a car company, he understood that firms making cars and planes are all transportation companies and share many traits and problems. He cleaned up Ford's globally disparate parts under the mantra of "one Ford everywhere." And he can handle unions while creating jobs -- no mean feat.

You might laugh at this one, but CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration before going to Wall Street to make his millions and subsequently flame out like a booze-and-drug-fueled Icarus, a low period he has discussed openly. But Americans believe in second chances, and Kudlow's been one-day-at-a-timing it for more than a decade. There is no more articulate spokesman for supply-side economics and tax-cut job creation. Yet, not even his legendary selection of suits and ties will likely win him admirers in the Obama White House.

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