Top Economist Leaves White House, and an Economy Not Yet ‘Normal’

WASHINGTON — Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, will step down on Friday and return to teaching at Princeton University. As a going-away present fit for an economist, her staff presented her with a chart showing every previous chair of the council, ranked by the number of jobs created during their tenure.

Dr. Rouse’s name tops the list. In the two years since she was confirmed to be President Biden’s top economist, becoming the first Black chair of the council, the U.S. economy has created more than 11 million jobs. While that is a record for any presidential administration, it is also a direct result of the unusual circumstances of the fast-moving pandemic recession, which temporarily kicked millions of people out of the labor force before a swift recovery added back most of those jobs.

As Dr. Rouse acknowledged in an interview this week, all that job growth has yet to restore a full sense of economic normality. Inflation remains much higher than normal. Consumers are pessimistic. The economy and the people who live and work in it, she said, are still to some degree stuck in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic.

That phenomenon has scrambled markets like commercial real estate, Dr. Rouse said, exacerbated price growth and most likely hurt productivity across the economy by encouraging remote work. She said she believed in-person work was more likely to produce innovation that stokes economic growth.

The effects have lingered longer than she initially expected.

“We still have Covid with us,” Dr. Rouse said in her office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “It is still impacting decisions that we’re making, whether it’s on our personal side, economic decisions.”

She later added, “Sometimes I, in this course of the last few years, I wished my Ph.D. was in psychology.”

In a wide-ranging interview reflecting on her time at the council, Dr. Rouse defended the Biden administration’s policy choices in responding to the pandemic and to deeper problems in the economy. She also repeatedly emphasized the need for “humility” in evaluating decisions that had been made in response to a wide range of possible risks.

She did not directly answer questions about whether she agreed with previous chairs of the council who have argued that direct payments to lower-income Americans included in that legislation helped to inflame an inflation rate that hit a 40-year high last summer.

But Dr. Rouse said the plan was an appropriate “insurance policy” in 2021 against the possibility of a double-dip recession. At the time, job growth had slowed and new waves of the coronavirus were colliding with a vaccine rollout that officials hoped would stabilize the economy but were unsure of.

She also said that American workers were better off in their current situation — with low unemployment and strong job growth but higher-than-normal price growth — than they would have been if the economy had fallen back into recession and millions of people had been thrown out of work, potentially hurting their ability to find jobs in the future.

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“I believe workers are better off today than they would have been had the federal government not intervened,” Dr. Rouse said. “But you know, some of this will depend on how long we have inflation with us. Because inflation is costly.” Asked when she expected it to return to more normal levels, she replied, “Hopefully by the end of the year.”

Fiscal hawks have criticized Mr. Biden for signing a rescue plan that was not offset by spending cuts or tax increases and thus added to the national debt. Dr. Rouse said the plan “may well have” paid for itself in fiscal terms. She explained that possibility in terms of the debt the government incurred to finance the plan, offset by the consumer and business activity generated by the plan’s provisions that sent money to people, which increased gross domestic product.

“If we hadn’t really provided that kind of support, G.D.P. would have been much smaller,” she said. “So the federal government might have spent less and so the debt might have been smaller, but G.D.P. might have been much smaller as well.”

Previous administrations have claimed their policies will “pay for themselves” by spurring economic growth and higher tax revenues. Those include the tax cuts signed by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, which his administration said would pay for themselves, but which independent evidence showed added trillions to the national debt.

Dr. Rouse repeatedly said in the interview that future researchers would have the final say on the impact of Mr. Biden’s policies — particularly on inflation. She and her staff were part of a modeling effort in early 2021 that concluded that even with Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion injection into the economy, there was little chance of prices rising so quickly that the Federal Reserve would not be able to control inflation.

“I would say that we were all working under uncertainty,” she said on Thursday, when asked about those models. “I think time will tell as to whether that was the right move.”

A labor economist at Princeton, Dr. Rouse pledged in the White House to advance Mr. Biden’s efforts to promote racial equity in the economy and American society. That included improving the data the federal government collects on economic outcomes by race and ethnicity.

Asked about that work, Dr. Rouse pointed to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that breaks out monthly job figures for Native Americans, along with a handful of other new efforts. “It’s a slow process,” she said.

Mr. Biden praised Dr. Rouse and her role in helping to navigate the economic challenges of his administration in a statement issued by the White House on Friday. “No matter the challenge, Cecilia provided insightful analysis, assessed problems in a new way and insisted that we examine the accumulation of evidence in drawing conclusions,” he said.

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