Obama loses a top economic adviser. In this economy, is that a good thing?

White House economist and longtime Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee says he's returning to academia. Considering Americans' views of the slow recovery, perhaps that helps the president.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee gestures as he addresses the 2010 meeting of Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington in this Nov. 16, 2010 file photo. Goolsbee plans to resign and return to academia, the White House said on June 6.

Austan Goolsbee isn’t exactly a household name, though fans of the Daily Show might recognize the White House economist and long-time adviser to President Obama from his bantering appearances with Jon Stewart in recent years.

In addition to his job, since September, as chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Mr. Goolsbee has also tapped into his skills as a performer to explain economics in lay terms in countless TV interviews and White House videos showing him at the “white board.” As a Yale student, Goolsbee was a member of the improv troupe Just Add Water and a champion debater.

But no amount of verbal gyrations can convince the public that the economy is improving, as the unemployment rate (now 9.1 percent) clicks upward and economic growth remains sluggish. And now Goolsbee is departing Washington to return to his teaching job at the University of Chicago. His stated reason was to preserve his tenured professorship.

“Since I first ran for the US Senate, Austan has been a close friend and one of my most trusted advisers,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Monday night. “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. He is one of America’s great economic thinkers.”

Goolsbee will remain involved with Obama, as an outside adviser to his Chicago-based reelection campaign. But the loss of Goolsbee leaves Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as the sole remaining member of Obama’s original economic team. The positive spin is that Obama can now hit the “reset” button with fresh advice addressing the sluggish recovery. But Republicans, well aware that the economy threatens Obama’s reelection, pounded hard on Goolsbee’s impending departure.

The campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the early frontrunner in the GOP nomination race, mocked Goolsbee’s resignation by calling it “just another bump in the road” – playing off the CEA chairman’s statement last Friday on the new unemployment figure.

“There are always bumps on the road to recovery, but the overall trajectory of the economy has improved dramatically over the past two years,” Goolsbee said in a White House blog post.

The Romney campaign also mocked Goolsbee’s reason for leaving: “President Obama’s top economic adviser is returning to the faculty lounge – while millions of Americans remain unemployed – because he ‘could have lost his tenured position.’ ”

Even if Goolsbee’s departure won’t mean anything to most Americans, the state of the economy certainly does. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that public disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy has reached an all-time high. About six in 10 Americans now disapprove of how Obama has dealt with the economy and the deficit; two-thirds of political independents, a slice of the electorate he must win to be reelected, disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. By 2 to 1, Americans say the country is seriously off on the wrong track.

The poll also gauged how Obama would fare against various announced and possible Republican presidential candidates. For now, the only one who would beat him is Mr. Romney. But only 21 percent of Republican voters support him for the nomination, versus 17 percent for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has not announced yet whether she will run. In a head-to-head contest against Obama, Ms. Palin would lose by 15 points among registered voters, 55 percent to 40 percent.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who laid out an economic plan Tuesday in a speech in Chicago and is seen as having top-tier potential, would lose to Obama 50 percent to 41 percent. But, the survey pointed out, most Americans aren’t paying attention. Only 22 percent say they’re following the 2012 presidential election “very closely.”

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