Krueger Shares Stories, Lessons from White House Job

When Princeton professor Alan Krueger became the chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2011, he already was familiar with the administration from an earlier stint in the Treasury Department. He knew that senior White House officials met each morning at 7:30 a.m., so he asked to attend.

23280-p030413ps-0494_1-thumb-300x200-23279.jpg
Alan Krueger talks with President Barack Obama following a cabinet meeting in March 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Bill Daley, then chief of staff, told him he had nothing against Krueger joining the meeting but insisted that it was mostly about politics and not a necessary stop for an economic adviser.

“I said, ‘Look I’m not a morning person,’” Krueger recalled in a Nov. 21 talk at the Woodrow Wilson School. “ ‘I really don’t want to have to wake up to go to a 7:30 meeting. Why don’t I go and if it’s not useful, I’ll stop going.’”

From that point forward, Krueger never missed a meeting. “It really was essential for figuring out what the president’s priorities were,” he said.

In his lecture, titled “In the Nation’s Service: Lessons from Serving as the President’s Chief Economist” and delivered to a full house at Dodds Auditorium, Krueger outlined 10 lessons, including some borrowed from colleagues (“A plan beats no plan,” courtesy of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) and others with indeterminate origins (“Keep it simple, stupid”).

Krueger, who returned to the Princeton faculty earlier this year, also compared life in Washington to life in academia. Policy work is much more of a team pursuit than academic research, and that means more meetings and more time spent listening to the ideas of others. At a university, people are eager to leave meetings and get back to work; but for policymakers, he said, “lingering is rewarded.”

He recalled one particularly difficult cabinet meeting (pictured above) about the federal budget cuts known as the sequester. Krueger stayed to speak with Obama and share a line from his draft of the annual Economic Report of the President, in which he explained the “hopeful science” of economics. “The president was enthusiastic about that. I suspect it was the highlight of the meeting for him,” Krueger said, drawing laughs from the audience.