In shift from Depression scholarship to White House policymaking, Sunshine Queen finds voice
Christina Romer is the cheerful new face of the Obama economic team
WASHINGTON — Christina D. Romer PhD ’85 was so spooked by a momentary lapse during a long-forgotten MacNeil-Lehrer spot during the Clinton administration that she avoided doing television for a decade. Today, the UC Berkeley professor is the most visible face of the Obama administration’s economic team, from the showcase Sunday talk shows to live cable spots from the White House lawn.
“Have you ever had your brain just go blank, and you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m on live TV, and I have no idea what I’m saying?’ ” Romer, 51, said in an interview in her Eisenhower building office next door to the White House. Her husband and longtime collaborator, fellow University of California at Berkeley economist David Romer, assured her that the lapse was barely visible to viewers.
“But it was the longest 15 seconds of my life and I swear I did not do a TV interview for 10 years,” she said. “It was scary. And it’s still scary is the truth.”
Sporting an unusually cheerful disposition for an economist, and an eminent scholar of the Great Depression, Romer was once described as “America’s sixth-grade teacher.” As chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, her sunshine quotient all but obliterates those of her colleagues, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council chief Larry Summers. She seems to take the blood out of Washington’s blood-sport politics.
Yet she has shed plenty of her own. Her optimistic forecast that the $800 billion fiscal stimulus would hold unemployment below 8 percent and “save or create” 3 million jobs became a font of ridicule and Republican claims that the stimulus failed when unemployment shot above 10 percent.
Less prominent was the vindication that arrived February from the Congressional Budget Office, which found the stimulus added up to 3 million full-time jobs.
“I’m sure I will have enjoyed this job in retrospect,” Romer said, “but right now it is incredibly hard.”
“It’s brutal,” said her husband, David H. Romer PhD ’85, who took a non-policymaking job at the International Monetary Fund to accompany his wife and 13-year-old son Matthew to Washington. The couple’s two older children are in college.
“When I would hear people say, ‘He works 80 hours a week,’ I didn’t believe that before she got this job. But one week I was counting, and it was only Wednesday and she’d already put in 39 hours in three days. So yes, it varies between completely unsustainable and just incredibly hard.”
David Romer has learned to sew on buttons and cook, and his wife is torn about spending so much time away from her last child. But her children told her when she arrived home in Berkeley just before Christmas in 2008 with no presents, “It’s OK Mom, you’ve so upped our cool factor.”
The homebody couple is not a fixture on D.C.’s social scene. David Romer said it was fun dancing with his wife at a recent White House governors’ ball. More typical is bedtime reading of two-volume CBO reports and economic forecasts that David Romer attested she keeps on her bedside table.
Although the Romers had informally advised the Obama campaign — and she gave contributions so readily that he joked that he was grateful that campaign finance laws prevented her from donating their house — they had little clue she was being considered for a White House job.
“It all happened incredibly fast,” Romer said. “I remember vividly, it was a Sunday afternoon and I got an e-mail from someone saying, ‘I’d like to talk to you about the Obama transition.’ ” She initially dismissed the e-mail, but her husband decided to do a Google search and discovered the e-mail was from the head of economic personnel for the transition. “You might want to call him back,” he told her.
White House adviser and transition Co-Chair Valerie Jarrett, who did not know Romer before she was named, said Romer was “recommended to the president by numerous sources.”
Born in Alton, Ill., Romer graduated from high school in Canton, Ohio, got her bachelor’s degree in economics from the College of William and Mary and her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she took a graduate course from Summers.
Summers said he never would have guessed at the time that he would be working with her in the White House, “but I thought she was extraordinarily creative as an economist even back then, and she probably wrote of that period one of the most discussed doctoral dissertations.”
The two Romers met at MIT, married in 1983 and sold themselves as a team, landing jobs as junior professors at Berkeley in 1988. Both now have endowed chairs.
Romer’s conservative critics today surely could have gotten a worse appointment from their perspective. As Keynesians go, there are far more liberal pickings. Romer is more what Berkeley colleague Brad DeLong describes as an “empirical monetarist” whose work has shown how not just markets, but government policies, can fail.
She is one of the nation’s pre-eminent economic scholars. She sat on the committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research that dates business cycles and was a star teacher at Berkeley, winning the coveted campus distinguished teaching award.
Romer cites her years teaching introductory economics to Berkeley freshmen as vital preparation for explaining economic policy to the public and Congress.
“She has a deeper understanding of financial crises and the Depression than almost anyone in the country,” said San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen, a Berkeley colleague and Romer confidante who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration and is now Obama’s likely nominee to vice chair of the Fed.
Shaping U.S. economic policy from the White House may be an economist’s dream job, but it’s not exactly like pulling the levers of a machine. An economy is essentially a collection of unpredictable human beings. Congress does not always follow directions. Decisions do have consequences.
“It’s very stressful — it’s a fantastic challenge, both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time,” said Yellen, who, like Romer, is married to a Berkeley economist, George Akerloff. (The couples are fast friends.)
Yellen said when she was in the White House from 1997 to 1998, there was the Asian financial crisis and Russian default, but in the United States, unemployment was falling to its lowest level since the 1960s.
“There was a great deal to worry about and some very tense times,” Yellen said. “But I was almost always delivering good news, and surprisingly good news. This is a very difficult time, and a much more challenging time to be in the White House.”
In her first month in office, Romer pushed for and got “the biggest countercyclical fiscal action in history.” As an introduction to policymaking, she said, that “was pretty amazing. The first thing I care deeply about, it went through, it was a good bill, it passed, it was signed. Unfortunately, it isn’t always like that.”
Last month, Romer sat as an honored guest in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visitors’ gallery during the decisive vote on health care legislation, a nod to her Bay Area roots and her role in pushing the legislation.
She called the deficits left by the previous administration “a crime” because they handcuffed the Obama administration’s ability to respond to the 2008 financial crisis. Future deficits promise to handcuff the government even more.
“I’m deeply worried about the deficit over the long haul,” Romer said. Before the crisis, she said, “I was as big a deficit hawk as anybody.”
But the cost controls she advocated in the health care legislation have been watered down, and some say eviscerated, even though the Congressional Budget Office estimated they will save a substantial half a percent of gross domestic product in their second decade.
Asked if she remains confident that the new law will control costs, Romer said, “I am.” The legislation “ is a chance to do this thing well,” she said.
Her critics contend the opposite is true. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and economic adviser to Obama presidential rival Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., panned Romer’s health care analysis and said the new law “doesn’t even come close to saving money, it costs money.”
When Romer criticized past policymakers, she wondered in the back of her mind if one day she too would be harshly judged.
“I have spent my whole life studying economics and the history of economic policy, so yes, it’s amazing to be here,” she said. But she confessed it is “sobering” to be making policy, as opposed to talking about it in the abstract.
“I am definitely more sympathetic than I once was to policymakers in the 1930s,” she said. “I can see how hard it may have been even in the middle of the Great Depression to realize what the right policy was and to get the right policy through Congress.”