Obama seeking input from diverse set of economists

President Obama jogged to the stage to speak about the economy at Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington on Tuesday. Facing gridlock in Congress on his economic plans, he has been seeking ways to use his executive powers.


President Obama jogged to the stage to speak about the economy at Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington on Tuesday. Facing gridlock in Congress on his economic plans, he has been seeking ways to use his executive powers.

WASHINGTON — For the second time in three weeks, President Obama on Wednesday invited top economists to a private lunch at the White House, tapping a broad array of ideological views as he seeks to assemble an economic agenda for the remaining 30 months of his presidency.

Unable to get his economic policies through a divided Congress, Obama is going beyond his White House economic team in search of ideas that can be translated into executive actions or ways to nudge institutions and businesses to make changes that meet his economic goals.


Some of the participants are well-known to Obama. Among Wednesday’s guests was former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, freed from the firewalls that separate the White House from the nation’s central bank. Others, such as Princeton’s Alan Blinder, who lunched with Obama two weeks ago, and Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who was a guest Wednesday, have previously provided advice to Obama. Feldstein was an adviser to President Reagan.

All in all, 13 economists have been to the White House since June 18, offering Obama their take on issues ranging from banking and finance to technology and education.

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The approach is not altogether new for Obama. He has been known to enjoy meals with historians and, early in his presidency, frequently sought outside counsel from economists as he prepared policies to address the financial crisis and the Great Recession. But the new sessions with economists differ in focus from the past, one senior administration official said, because Obama is tapping academics with diverse ideologies and who study a range of topics, from the impact of robotics to corporate governance to taxation.

The political views of the participants range from liberals such as Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who days before his meeting with Obama described his host as ‘‘looking like a very consequential president indeed,’’ to conservative Kevin Hassett, who has written that Obama’s efforts to stimulate a recovery ‘‘have had little visible impact on the relative performance of the US economy.’’

Participants, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the private sessions, say Obama asks each economist to talk about his or her work then initiates a discussion and concludes by asking for specific policy proposals. In addition to lunch with the president, several of the economists either arrived early or stayed late to meet with government economists from various agencies.


‘‘I think it is good if he is trying to figure out what can be done from the White House in two-and-a-half years,’’ said Anat Admati, a finance and economics professor at Stanford University who attended the June 18 session. ‘‘The White House is just a piece of the puzzle. What it can do are two things. It can appoint people subject to needing them confirmed. The second things are softer — pushing, giving cues to other people, or working behind the scenes.’’

Obama has been visibly frustrated by his inability to win legislative battles. Congressional Republicans note they have passed bills aimed at spurring the economy only to see them blocked in the Democratic controlled Senate. Both sides have engaged in election-year posturing as well.

In that gridlock, Obama has acted on his own, issuing executive orders and prodding leaders from the private and public sectors to adopt new policies.

Those efforts, however, are limited and don’t have the permanence of law.

Among the steps he has taken are ordering federal contractors to increase the minimum wage they pay and speeding the approval process for construction projects.

The ideas discussed in the lunches are compiled by Jason Furman, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council. They then review the ideas to determine whether to pursue them as White House policies.

Compared to last month’s session, Wednesday’s lunch featured more conservative voices.

In addition to Krugman, Admati, and Blinder, who served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers, other economists at the June 18 session were Claudia Goldin, who has studied and written about pay equity at Harvard; Erik Brynjolfsson, who researches and teaches information technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Roland Fryer, the founder of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory.

Wednesday’s guests, in addition to Bernanke, Feldstein, and Hassett, included Stanford’s Robert Hall, an early proponent of a flat income tax, Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, an expert on urban policies, and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland, where she specializes in economic inequality.

The president wants to ensure he’s consulting “a wide variety of experts and people who come at this from a wide variety of perspectives,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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