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Nomination of UC Berkeley economist is met with praise

Monetary policy expert Christina Romer is chosen to head the Council of Economic Advisors.

November 25, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Paddock is a Times staff writer.

UC Berkeley economics professor Christina D. Romer, named Monday by President-elect Barack Obama to head his Council of Economic Advisors, is an expert on the Great Depression and monetary policy who is respected for her keen analytical skills, friends and colleagues say.

Associates praised Romer, 49, as a knowledgeable and tough-minded expert who can be expected to work well with other members of Obama's team as his administration attempts to overcome the country's economic crisis.

"She's a great choice," said Harvard University economics professor Gregory Mankiw, who chaired the economic council from 2003 to 2005 and is a longtime friend of Romer's. "She's a very good economist, a great public speaker, and . . . brings to the table an understanding of history that most economists don't have."

Nobel Prize-winning UC Berkeley economics professor Daniel McFadden, who taught Romer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1980s, also applauded her selection.

He said her historical perspective would be of great help as the Obama administration tries to halt the nation's economic slide.

"She understands in great detail what went wrong in the 1930s and what government policies were ineffective," McFadden said.

"I would describe her as a modern macro-economist who understands the power and the limits of the government to affect the economy," he said. "She has a sophisticated and nuanced view of what economic policy would do."

Romer's husband, David, also is an economics professor at UC Berkeley, and the two have long worked closely together, often co-authoring research papers. David Romer, like his wife, is a specialist in monetary policy. They have taught at the university for 20 years.

"They are a very close-knit team and work together on their research," McFadden said. "President Obama is getting two for the price of one."

The Romers have both been consultants to Obama's economic team. Other UC Berkeley scholars on the president-elect's transition team include Laura D'Andrea Tyson, former dean of the Haas School of Business who served as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Clinton, and public policy professor Robert B. Reich, former Clinton Labor secretary.

Friends and colleagues said they expected Christina Romer to work cooperatively with former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who will take another key economic post in the new administration, becoming head of Obama's National Economic Council.

"I would guess that they will be natural allies on most issues," said Mankiw, who attended MIT with the Romers and was best man at their wedding. "On most policy issues they will see eye to eye."

In previous administrations, the two White House councils have worked independently of one another, with the Council of Economic Advisors providing analytical perspective and the National Economic Council taking a more political approach. It is unclear whether that division will remain under Obama.

Summers and the Romers have an unusual history with Harvard.

After serving in the Clinton administration, Summers became president of Harvard, but he resigned from his post in 2006 after provoking controversy by suggesting that women might have less aptitude than men for science and mathematics.

In May, Harvard was poised to lure the Romers away from UC Berkeley and hire them both as tenured professors, the Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper, reported.

But Christina Romer's appointment was vetoed by Summers' successor, Drew Faust, Harvard's first female president. David Romer then turned down his appointment and the couple remained at Berkeley.

A Harvard spokesman declined Monday to comment on the university's decision not to hire Christina Romer, saying the university does not discuss tenure cases.

James Wilcox, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas school who has known Romer and her husband for decades, said Obama made a good choice.

"She has a stellar academic reputation," Wilcox said. "She is well-regarded for her work in economic history and monetary policy. She's really smart. She's really serious about ideas and what will work."

Wilcox predicted that Romer's background as a professor would be an asset as she works with noneconomists within the administration.

"One thing that really serves an economist well is to be a good teacher, and she is a really good teacher," he said. "She is really gifted at cutting right to the heart of the matter, and to be able to explain what is important and what is not important."

Romer's academic colleagues said they expected Romer's personal skills would help her in dealing with other White House policy makers.

"She can be tough, but she is not aggressively tough," McFadden said. "She is a nice tough person."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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