WASHINGTON — In his barely decorated office, beside a picture of him teaching class in a tuxedo on his wedding day, Austan Goolsbee has a black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali.
“My goal,” explained the lanky University of Chicago professor, now on leave to work as one of President Barack Obama’s senior aides, “had always been to be the Muhammad Ali of economic advisers . . . to bring a certain humor or style to an otherwise not-so-glamorous line of work.”
In the frenetic arena of the 24-hour cable news networks, Goolsbee has become a ubiquitous presence defending the president and his economic policies. A onetime improv comic and former college debate champ, he counterattacks Obama’s critics with wit and a sometimes caustic edge.
On Monday, he’ll be on air again, this time matching wits with Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.”
Amid the struggle over Obama-backed legislation to regulate sudden increases in credit card interest rates, Goolsbee likened the industry’s practices to “a series of carjackings.” During the firestorm over bonuses to AIG insurance executives, he declared they should instead be awarded “a Nobel Prize — for evil.” And when John McCain’s chief economic adviser touted the Republican candidate’s “detailed” economic plan on a joint cable appearance, Goolsbee shot back, “There is more information on the back of a box of Froot Loops.”
“I’m proud to have gone 1,015 rounds with Austan Goolsbee, and even happier it’s over,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the McCain aide on the receiving end of the Froot Loops line.
“Most policy people are not prepared to go out there and take a punch as well as throw some punches,” Goolsbee said, during an interview at his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. “But I have no problem with it. I kind of enjoy it.”
Goolsbee’s talent — and relish — for the blood sport of political debate has made him a valuable addition to an economic team whose most prominent members, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, have hardly been hailed as great communicators.
“Goolsbee needs all the one-liners he can get” to defend Obama’s economic policies, said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Katie Wright.
Nonetheless, the young academic star — he’s still a few months shy of 40 — is one of Obama’s closest economic advisers, and their longstanding relationship dates back to Goolsbee’s policy help during Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign.
Goolsbee, who was born in Waco, Texas, and spent part of his youth surfing while growing up in Whittier, Calif., now is the father of three children, ages 3, 6 and 8. “You can always count on Austan to tell you exactly what he thinks,” said Valerie Jarrett, a member of the White House inner circle who has known Goolsbee for years through the University of Chicago.
Goolsbee, part of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, already has played a role in shaping policies.
He was the key architect of the administration’s plan to assist struggling homeowners. He was a skeptical voice in deliberations on the auto industry bailout, forcefully challenging the automakers’ reorganization plans.
And he prevailed in arguing the administration take a measured approach in fulfilling a campaign promise to tax the foreign earnings of U.S. corporations, contending too tough a line risked driving companies to move their headquarters overseas, administration officials said.
He’s also heavily involved with the administration’s efforts to reform the tax code.
While an academic, Goolsbee advocated giving people with uncomplicated finances the option of receiving a pre-filled tax return, based on financial information reported to the government by employers, banks and other financial services companies. If they wished, taxpayers could simply sign and send back what Goolsbee calls the “Simple Return.”
During an interview in mid-May, he was contemplating the invitation to appear on “The Colbert Report.”
“There’s a real danger of looking like an idiot,” he said. But, he noted, “Most folks don’t read policy fact sheets. If we want them to hear it, sometimes the only way is to explain it while being mocked by a comedian.”
Where: “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central
When: 10:30 p.m. Monday