Watching History Up Close

Duke's Ronnie Chatterji shares special moments at the White House

Ronnie Chatterji worked with President Obama and others while serving as senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Ronnie Chatterji worked with President Obama and others while serving as senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Duke professors who take time off to work in Washington, D.C., say it not only transforms their research and teaching; it also gives them a close-up view of history being made.

Ronnie Chatterji can vouch for that. He returned to Duke's Fuqua School of Business last year after serving for a year and a half as the senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). He shared some of his experiences with Duke Today:

***

Early on, my portfolio at the White House was a close match with my research and teaching experience. I covered policies relating to small business, entrepreneurship and innovation. Part of my job was figuring out what policies would encourage new ideas and startups. Fortunately, this was an exciting time to be working on these issues in Washington. The President signed the America Invents Act, which reformed the patent system, and the Small Business Jobs Act, which increased access to credit and capital for small businesses.

I also helped to launch Startup America, an initiative to spur high-growth entrepreneurship.  In addition to working out the policy details, I spoke at one of the kickoff events in Durham, where I met with local entrepreneurs, government officials and academics.

Throughout my time at the White House, I also worked on infrastructure, health, urban and rural policies, education and immigration, and spoke at events across the country. This wide-ranging portfolio provided me with a fantastic education on how things get done in Washington.

My D.C. experience had a tremendous impact on how I approach my research, making me think even more carefully about the research questions I ask. A key mission of Duke University is to create knowledge in the service of society. Understanding what kind of data and analysis policymakers are looking for helps me to create knowledge that is much more valuable to society.

I also learned that process sometimes matters as much as policy. Knowing who the players are and how decisions are made is as important for getting things done as knowing the intricacies of particular legislative proposals.

I have a couple of favorite anecdotes.

The first combines two of my favorite things, politics and sports. Duke won the national championship in 2010 and the team was invited to the White House to celebrate its achievement. Seeing President Obama, Coach K and the rest of the 2010 squad together in the Rose Garden was amazing. As one of the Dukies working in the White House, I had the opportunity to be there in person. As I scanned the crowd, it reminded me that, from Rep. David Price to Reggie Love, we have great representation in Washington.

The second story is from the signing of the Small Business Jobs Act. I had worked on the proposal and was very excited that it was going to be signed by the President. I managed to get into the bill-signing ceremony in the East Room and took a seat in the very last row, trying to look inconspicuous among the press, Congressmen, Senators and Cabinet secretaries. At the last moment, Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of CEA, waved me over and told me he had an extra seat near him right up front.

It was the first time I had seen a bill signing and I even got to shake the President's hand afterwards, all because of Austan's nice gesture. It was an exciting way to come full circle from working on the specifics of legislative language to seeing a bill signed into law.

Below: Ronnie Chatterji (right) spoke at many events in his White House role, including this Silicon Valley summit.

ronnie chatterji