WASHINGTON – The latest front in the battle over U.S. economic policy comes down to a man, a marker and a white board.
While conservative commentator Glenn Beck wields a mean green chalkboard on Fox TV, the White House this fall is deploying economist Austan Goolsbee to work magic with a marker.
Pay a visit to the White House blog, Facebook or YouTube and you'll find Goolsbee, chairman of President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, planted in front of a dry-erase board deconstructing the president's economic policies on matters such as taxes and jobs.
Four times this fall, Goolsbee has taken marker in hand to frame complex economic matters in viewer-friendly terms:
_Tax cuts for the wealthy are sketched as big red circles. Goolsbee tells viewers that "giving these big red eggs to the very high income people would cost $700 billion."
_The president's efforts to create more jobs are explained with a red-and-blue bar graph showing that things aren't as bad as they used to be.
_A chart showing hoped-for growth in U.S. exports is used to explain why Obama went to Asia this month. "You gotta go where the customers are," Goolsbee says.
_The latest installment is a Goolsbee video about the rebirth of U.S. auto industry, complete with a bar chart showing General Motors' return to profitability.
Goolsbee's background as an economics professor with a talent for improv comedy made him a natural choice to be the white-board guy.
Now he's getting recognized on the sidewalk by people wanting to chat about export policy, bantering with comedian Stephen Colbert on TV about the color of his markers, and getting unsolicited advice about his on-screen fashion choices (pleated pants got a thumbs down, as did wearing a white shirt in front of a white board.)
Goolsbee, 41, said he's been happy to speak in a format that showcases "content" and gets people "thinking about policy on a practical day-to-day level."
"It seems like there was a sore need in society for some format that involved a little less yelling and a little more fact," he says.
How much fact is debatable. The White House videos have spawned a number of online rebuttals questioning Goolsbee's analysis.
Video rejoinders from the conservative Heritage Foundation and a kid identified only as "6-year-old Josh" are among those circulating on YouTube. (Goolsbee doesn't watch them. Except his dad sent him the 6-year-old's, which he says "cracked me up.")
Keith Hennessey, a director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, has gotten more than 41,000 hits for a rebuttal video he called "the other side of the White House white board" that takes on Goolsbee's claims about the administration's jobs record.
"You can hear me, but you can't see me because I'm on the other side of Dr. Goolsbee's white board," an invisible Hennessey explains at the start of his video. Then he interjects running commentary into Goolsbee's video to give viewers what he calls the other side of the story.
Macon Phillips, director of Obama's "new media" team, says the white board videos are designed to give ordinary Americans access to the same sort of primer that Obama economists already deliver to White House staff members. More videos are planned, and other administration officials could take a turn in front of the white board.
"We're getting beneath a certain soundbite and really unpacking these issues in a way that anybody can understand," Phillips says.
The videos are deliberately unpolished, featuring hand-drawn charts rather than slick graphics.
Kathleen Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center, says they're like a quick Econ 101 course, which is "a good impulse." And in a time of economic stress, she says, the low-tech "chalk talk" approach is more effective than a polished ad that could invite backlash.
But Jamieson also says Goolsbee at times uses "selective evidence" or leaves out key points, giving people an incomplete picture. For example, she said, the video on taxes creates a misimpression that Obama wants to end Bush-era tax cuts only for millionaires, and the job-growth video doesn't explain why unemployment has remained high even as the number of private-sector jobs has grown.
Beck, on his Fox TV show, couldn't resist taking credit for being the inspiration for the new White House video series.
"They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," he said. "Well, I'm so flattered at what the White House is doing now. They aren't using a chalkboard. This is a totally different idea. This is a white board."
Then he proceeded to dissect Goolsbee's tax-cut talk and present a counter-analysis to straighten out "the Marxist-minded officials in the administration."
Goolsbee also got some tongue-in-cheek pushback when he appeared last month on Colbert's TV show. Colbert, who poses as a right-winger, objected to conservative ideas being depicted in an angry color. "Fire red, bad red, emergency red. ... Why didn't you make us green?" Colbert demanded. "That's the natural color for us!"
"Red is a primary color," Goolsbee countered. "Green is not a primary color."