Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Monday took a page from a politician's playbook to defend the US central bank's easy-money policies, citing the struggles of three Americans in a speech and touring a college workshop to shake hands with students and teachers.
It was her first public address since becoming Fed chair two months ago, and the tour of a manufacturing laboratory at Daley College on Chicago's southwest side was her first high-profile effort to lend an empathetic ear to the concerns of Americans five years into a frustratingly slow US recovery from recession.
At the lab, Yellen leaned in to watch as Masson Covington, a 29-year-old student, demonstrated how to precision-cut an aluminum bowling pin with a computer-numerical-controlled lathe.
"Oh, that's great!" the head of the US central bank said as the machine's luminescent coolant splashed behind a glass guard. "It's really simple," replied Covington. "I learned it all from these classrooms here."
Ostensibly, the excursion to Daley College, a community college that is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, was meant to highlight promising efforts to train skilled workers and to explain that the economy remains "considerably short" of the Fed's of goal of maximum sustainable employment and stable inflation, as Yellen put it in her morning remarks.
But behind the polite questions about course studies and job prospects, the trip around Chicago may have been as much about protecting the central bank's cherished independence from political interference.
If Yellen can convince college students that her sometimes perplexing institution serves the public's interest, the Fed has a better shot at beating back efforts in Washington it argues could erode its ability to make unfettered decisions on monetary policy.
"The Fed has been under attack because of some of the bailout policies that were followed during the financial crisis, and there is no vocal constituency on the Fed's side," said Robert Eisenbeis, a former research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta who is now chief monetary economist with Cumberland Advisors.
"So, such outreach activities are simply an attempt to show that the Fed does care about the public," he added. "Whether it will work or not is a different story."
This year, the Republican-led House of Representatives Financial Services Committee is holding what it calls an "aggressive" series of hearings on the Fed examining everything from the role its stimulus has played in swelling the nation's debt to the impact it has had on