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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.