Communicating President Bush's economic message is part of alumna's advisory role
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves
Kathleen Cooper's office window overlooks the Washington Mall, with its monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She serves in the administration of another U.S. president, George W. Bush, but her road to Washington began at UTA.
As undersecretary for economic affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce, the UTA Distinguished Alumna provides analysis on the U.S. economy. But in the late 1960s she was a young newlywed, struggling to put herself and her husband through school.
"I went to class at night during two of my years there," she said. "For me, college might never have happened if it hadn't been for U.T. Arlington. The flexibility the school provided, at a point in my life when I needed that flexibility, was critical. I can't speak highly enough of the professors there. I had an interest in doing more, and they provided the encouragement and support that I needed."
Retired economics Professor Walt Mullendore supervised Dr. Cooper's master's thesis, "but she really didn't need supervision," he said. "We really worked together more like two faculty members. She was truly an outstanding student."
Dr. Cooper earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's in economics from UTA, then completed her doctorate at the University of Colorado. "I had initially studied math because I understood it and didn't have a lot of trouble with numbers. But I found that I really liked economics. It used the math, but it focused on people, and I'm a people person."
A typical day in Washington involves people, people and more people. Several times a week, Dr. Cooper updates Commerce Secretary Don Evans on the latest economic news. "I'm basically his chief economic adviser," she said. Her economic acumen is vital in another role, that of communicating the president's economic message—to the press, to Capitol Hill and to the business community. Within the Department of Commerce, she also oversees the Census Bureau, with its 7,000 employees, and the 500-member Bureau of Economic Analysis.
"My role with the bureaus is primarily policy guidance," she said. "They are run by very knowledgeable career public servants with years of valuable experience."
Dr. Cooper's career experience in international economics and fiscal and monetary policy, first at Security Pacific Bank in California and then as chief economist for ExxonMobil, made her a perfect fit for the undersecretary's advisory role.
However, before serving in the Bush administration, her only contact with the future president—then Texas governor—was to shake his hand once when Exxon made a contribution to a Texas statewide savings bond campaign.
In the late 1990s, she did become acquainted with Clay Johnson, director of personnel for Bush when he was governor and now president.
"I spoke with Clay after the 2000 election and said that I would be very interested in working for this administration," she said. "I'm here now because of my economic background and because I was interested in serving."
Her appointment to the post of undersecretary for economic affairs was announced March 16, 2001, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 25.
Living in the fishbowl that is Washington required some adjustment at first. "It's very different than living 'outside the beltway,' " she said. "The environment is different; there's so much scrutiny."
But after a year of on-the-job experience, Dr. Cooper is thoroughly enjoying herself. "I'm finally feeling as though I really know how things work, that I know the most important things to get the job done.
"There are so many smart people here working
together. It's good to feel as though you're making some
small contribution to the country."