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Eric Rosengren a key figure in debate over economic stimulus

Eric Rosengren looked and sounded like a professor at ease in a lecture hall, making his case for more than half an hour with a deck of slides chock full of charts and graphs.

In fact, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston was talking about the economy to a crowd of business people in the ballroom of a Quincy hotel on Thursday. It was the first time Rosengren had spoken publicly since the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee voted last week to launch a new round of economic­ stimulus.

That strategy, including an open-ended commitment to buy $40 billion of mortgage-backed bonds every month for the foreseeable future, is a lightning rod in the debate over the nation’s economic policy.

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Supporters, such as Rosengren, believe the Fed action will supply a needed jump-start, while critics contend it will offer little real benefit while increasing the risk of inflation.

The timing of the vote — two months before­ the election — just increased the ­voltage.

Rosengren is right in the thick of that controversy. He put himself there intentionally and doesn’t seem to mind one bit. “I think a spirited debate is a healthy thing,” he said.

Spirited is one way to put it. Mitt Romney says he would replace Fed chairman Ben Bernanke over just such policies as the latest stimulus plan. Interest rate expert Jim Grant, in a recent television interview, said he’d fire Rosengren if he ran the Fed. You could call that spirited.

Rosengren became a high-profile advocate — in the pages of the Globe and elsewhere — for aggressive new economic stimulus before last week’s Fed meeting. His early comments were followed by a flurry of public appearances that amounted to campaign speeches — for and against new economic stimulus — by other­ senior Federal Reserve executives across the country.

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Rosengren emerged as a big winner when the Fed committee voted his way. His early support made life easier for Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, but Rosengren insisted there was no coordinated effort to influence opinion and little consultation between Fed officials.

“It’s pretty independently done,” he said. “I think you’d be surprised.”

Now he’s defending the Fed decision — in similarly public fashion — from critics who say the central bank made a big mistake.

Rosengren told the South Shore Chamber of Commerce audience that the Fed’s new initiative could boost a real estate recovery and combat high unemployment, but warned the effort was not an economic panacea. He acknowledged some risks but said they were well worth taking.

“It’s moving us in the right direction, and it’s getting a faster recovery than we otherwise would,” he said. “But we are far away from where we want to be, and it’s going to take several years to get there.”

Rosengren’s speech was widely reported Thursday, and the Boston Fed president appeared­ on Fox Business News to deliver the same message in a lengthy interview.

Rosengren became the third regional Fed president to publicly back the stimulus plan after the vote, following remarks by executives in Chicago and New York. The president of the Dallas Fed had warned the previous day that the stimulus plan would probably fail to create jobs but risked causing higher inflation.

This kind of public sparring by top Federal Reserve officials — before and after the vote — is very rare. It’s prompted by the confluence of several factors affecting policies and the people who make them.

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First, the Federal Reserve is pursuing its most polarizing economic strategy since Paul Volcker’s bruising campaign to rein in inflation 30 years ago. Also, Bernanke is managing the central bank in a much more transparent style than that of predecessor Alan Greenspan.

Finally, the media landscape has changed a great deal since Volcker battled inflation in the early 1980s. The fact that Rosengren has appeared on two cable business news networks and in many newspapers and on websites over the past few weeks speaks to that.

Rosengren is an interesting figure in what he rightly describes as important economic times. He seems comfortable and adroit getting his message out on television and in print. But he is also a highly regarded economic researcher — more than a bit of a wonk — who believes in data.

The guy with all the charts on the wall at Quincy Marriott ballroom is the real Eric Rosengren.

And he seems perfectly comfortable in the eye of a policy storm.


Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.