Ananat Serves Stint at White House Council of Economic Advisers

Elizabeth Ananat, assistant professor of public policy and economics, was in the middle of her yearlong sabbatical at the Brookings Institution last spring when an unexpected call came. She was asked to serve as a senior economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers for three months.

The council’s three members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and are supported by six senior economists and a group of junior staffers. The senior economists usually serve for a year; however, the early departure of an economist left a three-month gap that needed to be filled. A common expression among White House employees, Ananat said, is that each agency is running “a relay race where we’re always looking for fresh legs.”

Beginning on April 15, 2010, Ananat stepped in the relay carrying the portfolio for labor, education and welfare.  By her third day, she was preparing a briefing for the president. “It was a steep learning curve,” Ananat said.

Among her responsibilities was working with the Chair of the Council, Christy Romer, and others to prepare the monthly employment memo, which reports the growth in the number of jobs in the US since the previous month. The day before release of the memo, all communication about it had to be done on secure lines, so that no information would leak and affect the stock market.  A hard copy would be delivered to the president in the evening, prior to the release of the data to the media the next morning.  

Ananat also helped prepare other memos to the President, including the DEB, or daily economic briefing, a one-page of bullet points designed to “give the president everything he needs to know about the day’s economic news, without anything extra.” The high point of her service was seeing a briefing she had drafted circulate with President Obama’s handwritten note in the margin, stating, “We need to get this up to the Hill.” The data she had included helped support the creation of the teachers’ jobs bill that passed in August.

She also vetted drafts of presidential speeches and publications on issues including immigration, domestic, civil and legal affairs that touched on labor and education. “One of my jobs was to be ‘the economist in the room’ for many of the discussions around those issues,” Ananat said. 

Ananat also represented the White House  in an interdepartmental working group  tasked with developing a new set of questions for the Current Population Survey about “nontraditional education,” such as classes required by employers, certification programs, and training conducted by community colleges and for-profit colleges.

“We don’t know much about these programs, what’s out there and what is effective in helping people increase their employability and their wages,” she said.  Collecting this data will allow researchers to examine how such programs help with economic mobility. Council member Cecilia Rouse pushed to establish the group, which is led by the Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences and involves IES Director John Easton.  (Easton gave the Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture at Sanford on September 22.)

The pace of the job was intense. When a question came to her, she often had only a few hours to provide the answer. Ananat rarely left the office before 7 p.m., and then would continue to work on her Blackberry during her Metro commute and after she arrived home.  In spite of the demanding schedule, Ananat found the job rewarding.

“It was a very satisfying feeling that you are changing the conversation, that the things you know matter,” she said. “This is the most evidence-based administration ever seen in D.C.  People care about having the best possible information. It’s a great environment for policy researchers.”

The experience will inform her teaching this fall.  She can now say to her students, “Here’s why you need this tool.”  For instance, when she needed to discover how many jobs proposed funding would save, the programming language STATA, which is taught in Sanford’s statistics courses, helped her analyze the data.  Data memo writing and documentation skills are crucial, “so you can explain your conclusions clearly to an audience that doesn’t have economic training.” It also provides fresh motivation for her own research, she said. Now she knows that “for every topic I study there are people waiting to hear the answer.”