Harvard Economists Help Advise Obama on Healthcare

Two Harvard economists are helping to develop ideas for the presidential candidate who has been criticized for being “just words.”

In this week’s issue of the The New Republic, David M. Cutler ’87 and Jeffrey B. Liebman were praised for providing Illinois senator Barack Obama with academic bona fides and guiding the Democrat’s budget, health care, and Social Security policies.

Cutler, Harvard’s dean of the social sciences, suggested that the role of academic economists in politics has become especially important in light of the country’s most pressing problems.

“How do you get people to take up health insurance benefits that they’re already eligible for? It’s not an issue of money but an issue of something else,” Cutler said in an interview.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who in 1992 used political philosophers and public intellectuals to advise him, Obama has instead surrounded himself with economists in order to find smarter approaches for health care and Social Security, the magazine said.

Contrary to those who consider Obama an inexperienced leader and a bearer of empty rhetoric, Cutler said that the candidate possesses a healthy combination of general goals and specific, carefully weighed methods of implementation.

He said that this has become more apparent as Obama has faced off with rival Democrat Hillary Clinton in a series of nationally televised debates.

“He’s put together as comprehensive and thorough a statement about what he wants to do as any president in the past,” Cutler said.

Liebman, a public policy expert at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that Obama has taken into account the role of behavioral economics when considering the effect of policies on the decision-making of millions of Americans.

“I think we’re definitely seeing in this campaign, for the first time, the lessons of behavioral economics influencing policy proposals,” he said.

Liebman said Obama has been careful to surround himself with a variety of experts.

“When Obama gets briefed on an issue he really insists that an expert on an issue is in the room, and he really wants to have people with a wide range of views in the room,” Liebman said.

Liebman added that Obama has been quick to get to the root of issues.

“He is very smart and he asks his advisors very tough questions and drills down to the heart of policy trade-offs.”

Jarret A. Zafran ’09, the president of the Harvard Democrats, said the economists’ involvement in Obama’s campaign has provided a sense of comfort.

“It’s a very good sign that they’re offering real solutions to the American public and not just empty words like the Bush administration has.”