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Obama's New Economic Adviser A Promising Choice?

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, it was an event that sparked the biggest civil rights demonstration in years: A black student wanted to sit under a tree where white students usually met. The next day, nooses were hanging from the tree. The tension led to a fight. A white student was badly beaten, and six black in youth in Jena, Louisiana face up to 40 years in prison.

That started five years ago today, and we are going to talk more about that in a few minutes. But first, with an election just over a year away, the economy continues to be the top issue facing politicians in Washington, and with the national unemployment stuck at just over 9 percent, putting people back to work is the biggest economic issue facing the country right now.

Knowing this, President Obama announced yesterday that he has selected an economist who appears to be particularly suited to address the situation. If confirmed by the Senate, Alan Krueger will be the next chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

Professor Krueger is a professor at Princeton. He's devoted to studying issues related to jobs and unemployment. He's also familiar with government service, having previously worked for the Obama administration as assistant treasury secretary for economic policy before returning to academia last year.

In a briefing yesterday, Mr. Obama emphasized the importance of this selection.

President BARACK OBAMA: We need folks in Washington to make decisions based on what's best for the country, not's what - not what's best for any political party or special interest. That's how we'll get through this period of economic uncertainty, and that's the only that we'll be able to do what's necessary to grow the economy.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk more about Alan Krueger's appointment and what it could mean is Susan Collins. She is a professor of economics, and she is the Joan and Sanford Weill dean at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and she's with us from there. Dean Collins, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Can you remind us of what Mr. Krueger's role will be? What exactly will he do as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors?

PROFESSOR: Well, the Council of Economic Advisors provides economic advice to the president, and his role will be both behind the scenes, helping to analyze and suggest policies, but also as a spokesperson that has been in recent years often one of the most important roles for the chair of the council.

MARTIN: I know that you know Alan Krueger. You're not, you know, a close associate of his or a close colleague of his, but you certainly know him. Are there particular - is there a particular expertise or background that he brings to this job that is particularly important right now?

PROFESSOR: Yes, I think so, and I do think he's an excellent choice. He both is extremely well-respected across the aisle, although he's known as being left of center. His thoughtful, data-driven expertise has really given the confidence of experts of all different persuasions.

He's also known as a really strong communicator. He was a phenomenal teacher, and he is an excellent spokesperson. Given all the complex issues that Washington is grappling with and, frankly, sometimes the difficulty of explaining them to the public, I think that will be one of his most important assets.

MARTIN: And he's a labor economist. Could you just tell us exactly what that means?

PROFESSOR: Yes, so essentially, he is an expert on labor market. In fact, he has very broad interests, and so he has taken a wide swath of issues to study. He is known best for some of his work on minimum wages, in particular studying very carefully to argue that raising the minimum wage, that therefore increases the incomes of low-income workers, doesn't necessarily reduce jobs. And that was quite revolutionary, as a result, but has made quite an impression in the field.

He has worked on a wide range of other issues, as well, but that's what he's known best for.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, as I'm sure you know, the president and his administration broadly has received a lot of criticism of late because job creation seems to be stalled. A group that's been particularly critical of the president or some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as some black academics, intellectuals and thought leaders like, for example, the Princeton professor Cornel West, who's argued that the president has simply not placed enough emphasis on job creation.

And I just wanted to ask if there is - first of all, do you have any thoughts about that particular critique? And the reason people are focusing on African-Americans, I believe, is that they seem to be disproportionately affected by this recession. We know, for example, that the unemployment rate for African-Americans is higher, far higher than the general population.

In some urban centers, for example, the unemployment rate among black youth is in, you know, the stratosphere. It's in the 25 percent for example in certain areas. So do you feel that that's a valid criticism of the president overall?

And secondly, do you feel that Alan Krueger has any particular expertise in this area that would assuage the concerns of his critics?

PROFESSOR: Well, I would say a number of the policies that the president had advocated have been intended to assist workers across the board. The extent to which they were targeted explicitly in certain areas, I mean, I think the problems were so severe when he came into office that it was much broader approach.

And, you know, frankly, I'm of the camp that in order to have made a dramatic impact on employment, much more would have been needed. Whether that was politically feasible or not is of course a different question.

I would say that in this vein, Alan Krueger is really an appointment that people should be very pleased about. He has spent a lot of his career focusing on issues related more broadly to the toll that unemployment takes. He has worked on racial income gaps and the importance of supporting lower-income Americans and trying to address issues related to race and the importance of policy in doing that.

So I would think that we are likely to see more attention to these issues with him in that role.

MARTIN: And you used the word feasible earlier. So I want to pick up on that again, finally, You know, that there is only a limited amount of time before the presidential campaign begins in earnest. I think many people would argue it has already begun in earnest. Is it reasonable to expect any big accomplishments over the next year or so?

PROFESSOR: Well, I'm an optimist, and so it seems to me that it is possible to put together a plan that could make a real difference, and it would be a combination of some additional expenditures, perhaps on infrastructure, and also some tax incentives to try to get businesses who are sitting on huge profits at the moment to actually increase their employment.

I would expect that those would be the kinds of policies that Alan Krueger would be likely to advocate for, and the fact that he is such an able spokesperson might make it more feasible to pass them in what is frankly a very charged and difficult political situation.

MARTIN: Susan Collins is professor of economics and the Joan and Sanford Weill dean at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She was kind enough to join us from the studios at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Dean Collins, thank you so much for joining us.

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.