Washington worships the policy warriors, the brilliant macroeconomic manipulators who push through their agenda, using canny negotiation or the sheer force of fiery will. But Washington also very much needs its policy mechanics, the people who make sure that no matter what decision the president makes, the wheels won’t come off.
“What you like about Austan,” says Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, “is that he’s curious; he asks good questions; he listens. He also recognizes the limitations of what policy can do.” Immelt worked with Goolsbee on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. “He’s … a brilliant guy who’s also disarming. He’s supersmart but he doesn’t make you think he’s supersmart—he’s stealthy.” David Axelrod, another of Obama’s close advisers, also calls Goolsbee “brilliant,” but puts it more vividly: “He always sounds to me like the voice-over guy on a beer commercial.”
Bluntness, self-deprecation, and a knack for asking difficult questions: these are not necessarily the weapons you need to win policy battles. But in an adviser, they can be strategic assets that help a president win the policy war. The last administration had lots of policy warriors; it also had lots and lots of terrible mistakes made by people who didn’t ask enough questions. President Obama certainly knew Goolsbee well enough to understand what he was doing in elevating him to the council chair at the tender age of 41, making him the second-youngest person ever to hold the job. (The youngest was Arthur Okun, who served during the last year of the Johnson administration, and was just 39 when he took the job.)
But perhaps I am prejudiced, because I have experienced Goolsbee’s stealthy brilliance firsthand. In the winter of 2001, Goolsbee opened my technology-strategy class by asking, “Okay, now who likes the AOL–Time Warner merger?” We all raised our hands. The $165 billion megamerger had just closed, and the top-tier banks and consultancies we’d been interviewing with had gotten a piece of the deal. We’d become expert at generating novel reasons to love that messy agglomeration of old media and new.
Goolsbee was nodding, which made us feel smart. “Okay, why?”
Even the normally shy students bubbled over with justifications, and for some minutes Goolsbee listened intently and wrote our answers on the whiteboard. By the time he was done, the list spanned several columns, and AOL–Time Warner was beginning to sound like the best idea since the joint-stock company. And then he systematically demolished every one of those reasons.
The carnage went on for an hour, until his barrage of calm and deadly questions had deflated dozens of M.B.A. egos sufficiently to make room for learning. And then, gently, he started showing us when mergers do work—deals that require specialized investments, various sources of synergy, industries with large economies of scale. But the list of successful-merger conditions was short, and nothing on it sounded remotely like AOL.