Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, is… (Stephen Yang, Bloomberg )
Reporting from Washington — Austan Goolsbee is stepping down as chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, the White House announced Monday night, shaking up the economic team just as the recovery is sputtering.
Goolsbee, one of the administration's primary spokesmen on the economy, will return to his position as an economics professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, the announcement said.
A White House official said the president would have "loved" for Goolsbee to stay. But Goolsbee, who has served in the Obama administration from day one, might have jeopardized his employment at the university by remaining in government.
The university's faculty handbook says leaves of absence don't normally last beyond one year. A University of Chicago spokesman declined to comment on Goolsbee's status. Neither Goolsbee nor his press spokesman immediately returned messages requesting comment.
Goolsbee, 41, was appointed to the chairmanship nine months ago, replacing Christina Romer, who had resigned to return to UC Berkeley. Before that, he was part of a senior circle of economic aides who charted a path to the fragile economic recovery.
No president likes to lose a trusted confidante — a role Goolsbee played as campaign advisor and then as senior government official. But for Obama, the problem isn't so much personnel as policy.
Goolsbee's departure comes as a recent spate of troubling economic news is sparking fears that a full recovery could be years away. Unemployment rose to 9.1% in May — its second consecutive monthly increase — and housing prices have dropped to their lowest level since 2002.
Obama has few tools with which to create jobs on a scale that will reduce the unemployment rate. The Republican-controlled House won't go along with ambitious new spending plans that might stoke hiring. The $800-billion-plus stimulus package has played itself out, and Congress is consumed by a debate over cutting federal deficits.
"The problem for the president is he can't act unilaterally and there are no willing partners,'' said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House.
In a prepared statement, Obama said: "Since I first ran for the U.S. Senate, Austan has been a close friend and one of my most trusted advisors. Over the past several years, he has helped steer our country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and although there is still much work ahead, his insights and counsel have helped lead us toward an economy that is growing and creating millions of jobs."
Goolsbee said in a statement: "While I am looking forward to returning home to Chicago, I will always be proud of the years I have spent working for this president. I believe that his judgment, his courage in confronting the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, and his commitment to the American people have made a tremendous difference for the nation."
As one of Obama's most high-profile economic advisors, Goolsbee has been a target of criticism.
"With anemic job growth, plunging economic confidence and no real plan to rein in the debt, this departure is just the latest sign that the president has no answers for Americans concerned about the economy," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Monday night.
Turnover within Obama's economic team has been heavy. Since taking office 2 1/2 years ago, Obama has lost Romer, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, budget chief Peter Orszag, and Jared Bernstein, who was Vice President Joe Biden's top economic advisor. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has been in place from the beginning, however.
Apart from the private advice Goolsbee dispensed, he filled an important communications role. A more fluid public speaker than Geithner, Goolsbee often appeared on national TV shows to explain the administration's attempts to stabilize the economy, which is likely to be the dominant issue in the 2012 presidential race.
He is also friendly with Obama, and confident enough in their relationship that he once joked in a guest appearance at a comedy club that the two might have been separated at birth "in a village in Kenya."