As Markets Quake, Clinton And Obama Grab Econo-Gurus

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have effectively erased any lingering doubt over whether the economy is the most important issue in the Democratic race for president.

A debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, to the extent that it was about issues at all, was contested in the arena of tax rebates, health care mandates and stimulus plans. It was the culmination in this primary of a shift from the more glamorous issues of war and peace and to the dry, kitchen-table topics of domestic economic policy.

And that means that policy wonks, econo-nerds with last names like Goolsbee and Sperling, have supplanted the campaigns’ high-profile foreign policy firmament as the key advisers upon whom the hopes of the candidates hinge, waging complex proxy wars through the candidates and offering grist for reporters, pundits and bloggers, whose reaction to each complex rollout these days starts arriving well within the hour.

“It’s good that the issues are returning to the forefront after being overshadowed by Iraq and similar issues for so many years,” said Gene Sperling, Hillary Clinton’s chief economic adviser and Bill Clinton’s former national economic adviser.

Loquacious when on topic but generally low key, Mr. Sperling, 49, said the increased emphasis on economic issues meant that “a candidate or policy maker could make news on the domestic economy,” especially because there is “a greater receptivity in the media.”

Mr. Sperling, of course, is not new to the national limelight. A firm believer in promoting traditionally progressive values while unapologetically making the case for private sector growth, market incentives, and the inevitability of globalization (he wrote a book called The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity), Mr. Sperling has been on the national political scene for more than 15 years.

As such, he had a word of warning to his counterparts, who perhaps were letting their new relevance to the national debate in the year of a presidential election go to their heads.

“Policy advisers who think major shifts in national news coverage are about them don’t last long, nor should they,” he said.

Don’t tell that to Austan Goolsbee, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser and wunderkind economist, who since age 25 has been a professor at the University of Chicago. Mr. Goolsbee, adoringly known as “GSB” on economic blogs, wrote early and presciently about how the Internet would affect pricing, and has since written on a broad array of topics for publications including The New York Times, Slate and Business Week. The Financial Times called the spindly and demonstrative 38-year-old one of the “Gurus of the Future,” and even conservatives like George Will have written of him approvingly.

(Mr. Goolsbee, a former national debate finalist at Yale—and a serious contender in high school at Milton Academy, where, in 1987, he took second place in the National Forensic League championship tournament for his delivery of a speech he wrote himself called “Rite of Passage”—has the reputation as something of an eccentric. “The one thing you don’t want to do is share an office with Goolsbee, as I do at the campaign,” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief adviser. “Because you never get anything done. He’s always regaling you with stories.”)

Mr. Goolsbee is palpably enjoying his time as Mr. Obama’s economic sage.

“It couldn’t be a bigger difference from my day job,” said Mr. Goolsbee.

A college pal of Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, with whom he knocked on doors in the days before the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Goolsbee argues that the campaign is something of an economics hothouse.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I don’t know what it says about the candidates, but the three of us come from different worlds. Most of the Clinton team are kind of the wise political hands from the 90’s. Leo [Hindrey, John Edwards’ chief economic adviser] is more of a businessman and a friend and supporter of Senator Edwards. And I’m an academic and an economist, and the people that we have tended to loop in are Ph.D. economist types.”

That is a characterization to which Mr. Sperling takes strong exception.

“No,” he said when told of Mr. Goolsbee’s depiction. “Senator Clinton likes to take in a broad base of top academic views but also to integrate that with pragmatic analysis of what policies work in the real world and whether they’re capable of being passed.”

This is just one of the many things the two leading economists, whose generational differences reflect those of their candidates, disagree on.

“There is more pressure in general on the campaign, and I think certainly there was a time very early in the summer when most of the campaigns were at a very high level; there weren’t a lot of specifics going around.”

As Markets Quake, Clinton And Obama Grab Econo-Gurus