What Does A Presidential Candidate’s Economic Adviser Actually Do? A Freakonomics Quorum

The 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign is heating up, and as always a lot of the questions revolve around economic issues. So we thought we’d ask the economic advisers to all the main candidates to tell us about their roles. As you’ll see, we didn’t get all that many responses but we’re grateful to those who replied. Economic advisers for John McCain, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards were asked the following question:

What is the role of an economic adviser during a presidential campaign? Tell us a bit about your particular case.

Here are their responses.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and economic adviser to John McCain:

Let’s be honest. The first thing that the economics adviser brings to any campaign staff is a hip coolness and bling. Economists want to be valued for their minds and respected for their command of policy proposals and impacts, but it just doesn’t work that way. A typical staff attracts only extremely attractive twenty-somethings; wealthy and accomplished advisers; proficient, media-savvy managers; and suave, fast-talking fundraisers so attention almost immediately gravitates to the economists. It’s a burden.

The other big contribution to the campaign is pithy, quick-response messaging. Suppose you are asked the question: “Why does your candidate favor lower marginal tax rates?” Nothing cements your status like, “His review of the labor supply literature — focusing on the joint labor supply model of married couples — suggests that the substitution effects (which are best identified using tax-based natural experiments) are far larger than the income effects, so that in addition to the welfare (in the utilitarian sense) gains from lower tax-based distortions we are likely to see expansions of labor supply in the dimensions of effort, hours, participation and occupational choice.” Let’s see the press people match that.

Joking aside, an economic adviser has three major roles. The first is to recruit a network of policy experts in the various areas of public policy — tax, financial regulation, health, Social Security, and so forth. These researchers and practitioners allow rapid access to facts, the history of policy efforts, and the development of policy proposals that the candidate might consider. The second major role is education — i.e., explaining policies to various constituencies. Perhaps surprisingly, a large part of this is explaining issues to reporters, but it also includes volunteers on the campaign, political organizers, and sometimes the candidate himself. The third job is the hardest: fighting bad ideas. I believe that bad policy will, in the end, be bad politics. However, there are many well-intentioned (and perhaps some less well-intentioned) who would like to see the campaign adopt positions that are not in the national interest.

Working for John McCain makes all of this easier. He is fluent in the policy agenda, articulate, and willing to make decisions in the national interest. He is a one-man polling machine and has access to a vast array of advice on all policy issues. My job becomes one of delivering products on time, organizing the process to make the trains run, and framing issues clearly on behalf of the campaign.

Austan Goolsbee, University of Chicago economist and economic adviser to Barack Obama:

An economic adviser’s role depends on the adviser and on the campaign. I like to say that it’s half policy advising, half facilitating discussions with experts, and half doing a lot of grunt work.

In the case of someone like Senator Obama, who is interested in policy ideas that go beyond traditional divides and thus aren’t so easily plucked from existing legislation, the job entails a lot of discussing issues with experts across the ideological spectrum and giving the Senator access to differing points of view. As such, we might start with a general subject on which the Senator is interested in rolling out policy, and bring in a series of diverse experts on the subject for a briefing or a set of conference calls. From there, the policy staff might put together a set of possible policy options, cost them out, analyze who would be affected, and so on, and then we would put the results before the Senator and adjust them according to what he thinks.

Once we have a position he’s enthusiastic about, there is a team of folks who turns the position into a roll-out — speechwriters, scheduling managers, strategy and communications experts, etc. At that point, the policy folks take care of the more mundane tasks such as providing documentation for positions and writing fact sheets that explain the policy.

As an academic, I would have to say that my role is pretty thrilling, specifically because Senator Obama is such a special candidate. He’s a political leader, but has an intellectual curiosity and intelligence level as high as any hard-core policy expert. Starting out, I wasn’t as familiar with the political side of a campaign (though what other side is there, right?), so it has been a real education for me to help translate economic ideas into a form that is usable for the purposes of legislation.

James Bognet, policy development director for Mitt Romney:

The role of an economic adviser, or any campaign policy staffer, is to help your candidate win the election by developing sound policy. In my role as policy development director, I help manage the campaign’s policy department, and am charged with coordinating the Governor’s economic policy. My main goal on a daily basis is to help Governor Romney communicate his pro-growth, conservative vision for the U.S. economy.

A very rewarding part of my job is working with the top notch team of outside economic advisers that are supporting Governor Romney, such as Dr. Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of the Columbia School of Business and a former Chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. I arrange policy sessions and briefings for Governor Romney with respected advisers like Stanford economist John Cogan, former Congressman Vin Weber, former Senator Jim Talent, and Senator Jim DeMint. These advisers are deep thinkers who offer unique perspectives and innovative policy ideas, as well as counsel on how to confront the economic challenges the U.S. faces.

Without a doubt, the most challenging and exciting part of the job is briefing and interacting with Governor Romney. His years of experience as a CEO, private equity investor, and management consultant have honed very sharp analytical skills, a broad knowledge base, and real life experience in how America can compete in a global economy. He also fosters lively debates between his advisers and outside experts, asks in-depth questions, then digests and analyzes the varying data and arguments supporting such proposals. He views this data through the prism of the free market, pro-growth principles he has developed over his career, and makes decisions on which policies are the correct way to confront the important issues facing America’s economy and future.

Leo Hindery, executive in residence at the Columbia Business School and economic adviser to John Edwards:

John Edwards, for the decade I’ve known him, has always been about getting to the very bottom of issues, which means listening to all perspectives. John’s core concerns about economic fairness define my role as his senior economic policy adviser, and thus my job, in concert with a large group of other long-time supporters from business, labor and academia, is to help him frame, with a lot of specificity, his policies on jobs creation, trade and global competitiveness, taxation, income inequality, budget issues, and, as needed, healthcare and energy matters. As a group, we advise John and frame possibilities for him, while he decides the final policies.

John’s entire political life has always been informed by senses of fairness in society and equal opportunities. This is the case whether the issue is health care, economic and tax policies, trade, or the role of government. Consequently, I spend a lot of time looking at things for John like uninsured and under-insured Americans, the ongoing loss of American jobs to unfair trade practices, stagnant wages, the factors that have led to only 300,000 taxpayers making as much income each year as the next 150 million, and possible fiscal policies for his administration if he is given that privilege.

On a somewhat lighter note, as a presidential economic adviser I often get to debate the advisers of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which, along with doing surrogate press and television, is great fun. On economic issues, there are in fact a lot of differences among the three leading candidates, in substance, history and style. It is an honor helping Democrats understand them because, in addition to Iraq and Iran, these differences will, I believe, largely define the outcome of the upcoming caucuses and primaries.


Bognet is definitely just selling Romney (pro-growth, not to mention all the name dropping), and Hindrey is on the fence with his comments. Holtz-Eakin and Goolsbee really did answer the questions.

Jae Clarke

Amen Lawnsby! Also, while Bognet's response is filled with Romney spin, didn't he say that his main responsibility is to help Romney win?

Shane Killian

As for whether or not Ron Paul needs an economic advisor:

Ron Paul before the war: "Many Americans have been forced into war since that time on numerous occasions, with no congressional declaration of war and with essentially no victories. Today's world political condition is as chaotic as ever. We're still in Korea and we're still fighting the Persian Gulf War that started in 1990...Odds are, since a clear-cut decision and commitment by the people through their representatives are not being made, the results will be as murky as before."

Glenn Hubbard (one of the most respected political economic advisors and second choice behind Bernanke for Fed Chairman) before the war: "Costs of any [Iraq] intervention would be very small."

You be the judge.


Does anyone else think that the Holtz-Eakin and Goolsbee answers were honest and the others were B.S?

Adam Brown

I wish you managed to ask Ron Pauls economic adviser some questions. One of the things that Ron Paul is campaigning on is a total fiscal re-working of the US currency and financial system.

Ed Niteroi

I agree with you, Anon.

Chris Lawnsby

I agree with Anon as well, although I hope the first paragraph of Goolsbee's response was a joke; I wouldn't want the President's economic adviser thinking 1/2+ 1/2 + 1/2=1!


They were all somewhat BS, as is required for anyone in a campaign position, just as they were all required to support their candidate. Holtz-Eakin and Goolsbee just did a better job slipping in the BS while actually answering the question.


Thanks for being honest, Doug...


I'm with #1 as well.
But looking at Holtz-Eakin's answer (particularly the first part) - why can't the candidates provide that information (the "joke" answer) in their campaign for those interested? Why not set up a website that discusses their policies in-depth, their reasons for choosing them, and references to sources that support their conclusions? Sure, not everyone would bother to read it, but those who did read it would at least understand the actual reason for policy - not just the toned-down, easy listening version they present to the public during debates and speeches.


Totally, Anon.

I'm disappointed that Hillary's adviser didn't respond.


Ron Paul does not have an economic adviser because he has personally studied economics in depth. The starting point to understand his views would be at http://www.mises.org/


That Holtz-Eakin answer makes me want to vote for McCain. Funny, intelligent, and free spirited. I think it may say something for the campaigns (and the candidates) that Holtz-Eakin and Goolsbee are free to give honest realspeak rather than taking themselves way too seriously or seeing another opportunity to spout the already obvious campaign message. Good for you guys!


my take is: cynical, professional, cynical, used car salesman


Well, Lauren @11, here's one clue to Hillary's economic view. Give money away to voters: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20162363/?loc=interstitialskip

As tried and true a method as there ever was.


How can you fail to include Ron Paul? He is the only presidential candidate who is qualified to be his own economic adviser. He could tell you what an economic adviser should do. His response would be very educational to other candidates and their economic advisers.

Shane Killian

Is it just me, or did they just basically admit that they find out what the candidate/President wants first and then come up with economic justifications for it?

After all, that's basically what Nixon said in his memoirs.


Regarding Michael's post:

Presidential campaigns are gladiatorial battles. The winning campaign team (this includes economic advisers) will effectively bull, pander and prostitute at a level resonates with 51+% of the electorate vote.

I just hope that the likes of Holtz-Eakin and Goolsbee are still lancing economic ideology come November '08.

Bob M

To Davey - Is it all that bad to give tax money back to tax-payers? Don't all politicians say that they'll put money back in our pockets? Or is it best not to take it in the first place?

To Shane Killian - thanks for grounding us in a recent history lesson regarding Glenn Hubbard. Remember in the early weeks of Iraq War 2, when the Congress was told that the tab would run about $84 billion? Funny how it's more expensive in time, money, and lives to restore peace than it is to make war these days.


m.. thank you