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Obama economic adviser adopts classroom style to explain policies

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:02 AM

In the fall, with the administration struggling to convince Americans its economic strategy was working, the White House's new media team wanted to try an old-school idea: an adviser in front of a board explaining its policy ideas, like in a classroom.

Almost immediately, one aide said, they agreed on who should be the guinea pig: Austan Goolsbee. In a White House led by and filled with people with multiple degrees from fancy colleges, Goolsbee might be the chief nerd: a member of the debate team at Yale, University of Chicago economist, now head of the Council of Economic Advisers, a kind of in-house economic think tank.

At the same time, Goolsbee is the personality opposite of the frosty Larry Summers, who used to run the administration's economic policy: a laid-back guy who won a contest for D.C.'s funniest celebrity in 2009 with his stand-up routine.

In only a few months, Goolsbee's "white boards" have turned into one of the most popular items on the White House's Web site, and the administration has deployed other advisers to use the feature as well. The three- to four-minute videos, in which Goolsbee literally stands in front of a white board that is filled with charts (usually produced by interns) on the administration's plans for job creation, unemployment or other issues, are part of an increasing role for Goolsbee. He has become one of the administration's leading voices online and on television in discussing the economy.

"They are fun to do, and it serves an important purpose," Goolsbee said. "What I like the most about this venue, is it gives us the ability to be heavily about content."

The videos' audience is still quite small - about 20,000 people. But liberals say they are at least a sign the administration is trying different ways to communicate, and conservatives are noticing as well.

Keith Hennessy, who served on the National Economic Council in the George W. Bush administration, delivered a video rebuttal to one of Goolsbee's presentations on unemployment.

"I think they're using new technologies and they're doing it effectively and they are getting their message out," Hennessy said. "I often disagree with the substance of what they are putting out, but that's a separate question from whether it's an effective tool."

For Goolsbee, the videos are part of an increased public role for one of the few longtime Obama allies remaining in the White House.

Back in 2004, even though both worked at the University of Chicago, Goolsbee knew Obama mainly as a friend of another well-known Chicagoan, Valerie Jarrett. But Obama aides needed to prepare for debates against Republican Alan Keyes and didn't have a top economic adviser, so they asked Goolsbee for help.

He agreed, providing Obama research that the candidate then quoted even before the pair had actually met in person. (The two then met after one of the debates, leading Goolsbee to declare "skinny kid with a funny name, you stole my bit," as Obama was using a phrase to describe himself Goolsbee had once employed.)

Goolsbee was a top adviser on the 2008 campaign and joined the administration as part of the three-member Council of Economic Advisers. But in terms of influence, Goolsbee trailed Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Larry Summers, who was then head of the National Economic Council and then-CEA chair Christina Romer.

Goolsbee took Romer's job in September when she departed to return to her professorship at the University of California.

With the Republicans in control of Congress and reducing the budget deficit now a big priority of the administration, big-ticket economic policies like the stimulus package are distant memories. Instead, much of the administration's work is in explaining its new small-bore policies and defending the things it has already done.

Like many in the Obama administration, Goolsbee has little experience in the private sector, so advisers such as new chief of staff William Daley (who worked at JPMorgan Chase & Co.) are trying to sell the White House policies to business groups. Goolsbee instead is a regular presence in the media, ranging from "The Daily Show" to CNBC to White House.gov.

He recently took to his white board to explain the administration's idea to reform the patent process.

"We've got to communicate to people what we are doing outside the traditional channels," Goolsbee said in an recent interview. "Washington is its own subculture ... but I think the white boards reach a different crowd."

Obama today

In case you missed it, the president really likes basketball. After he took time Tuesday to meet members of the Celtics while in Boston, the president Wednesday will host members of Congress and others at the White House to watch the NBA game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Chicago Bulls, Obama's favorite team.

There is no word yet on whether NBA great Michael Jordan, who owns the Bobcats, will attend.

Presidential humor

In Boston on Tuesday, the president, who loves laughing at the jokes in his speeches (occasionally even before the audience does), seemed particularly pleased with two of them.

On how classroom technology has advanced: "Some of you may know I spent some time in school here myself. I was much younger. I had no gray hair. There were definitely no SmartBoards back then. The most exciting new technology was an electric pencil sharpener. So times have changed. You remember those? Do you know what pencils are?"

And on Education Secretary Arne Duncan: "He was on the Harvard basketball team; was a star there. Just the other week, he was in a celebrity basketball tournament where he was outscored by Justin Bieber. I'm just saying. Justin is, like, about 5'2", so please give him a hard time for that if you get a chance."

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