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Finally: The Douglas Elmendorf Profile!

2:43 PM, Nov 17, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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For anyone who's been in Washington for the past year, it's become increasingly obvious that the only moments of true bipartisanship come when everyone in the city is waiting for Douglas Elmendorf to deliver a CBO report.

No matter which persuasion, political junkies universally hunker down with their e-mail accounts and Twitter on constant refresh mode as Washington awaits another all-important judgment from the fiscal overlord of the federal government.

Douglas Elmendorf, the CBO economist on whose numbers the world waits, is the very picture of the kind of unlikely, unassuming man whom the geeky business of politics makes into an unwitting celebrity. The New York Times, in an interesting and fair piece, takes a look at the toll the numbers take on the numbers man.

A thumbs-up from Mr. Elmendorf could speed the process along, helping Mr. Obama fulfill his hope of signing a bill into law this year. A thumbs-down on any of the critical questions - how much the bill costs, how many people it covers, whether it reins in the runaway growth of health spending - could leave the White House and Democrats scrambling.

Democrats, who have been chafing at his calculations, sound nervous.

The glamorous life of the Elmendorf (who is, incidentally, a Democrat):

Mr. Elmendorf - bearded, bespectacled and cautious to a fault - shuns publicity and almost never appears on television, except for the occasional hearing shown on C-Span. He and his team of number crunchers occupy the cramped fourth floor of a government building that once housed F.B.I. fingerprint files. His own office has a view of the freeway.

In a way that's also quintessentially Washington, Elmendorf's celebrity comes with all the criticism and none of the glitter, all downside and no up:

Yet for a quiet man who thinks carefully about everything - he courted his future wife by inviting her to a baseball game, after calculating that games offer precisely enough activity to fill in conversation lulls - Washington's health care cauldron is an uncomfortable place to be. He is a Democrat who left partisan politics to join the budget office in January, and he is irking old friends.

"I get e-mail messages and read blog postings that think I'm a brilliant hero, and I also get blog postings and e-mail messages that think I'm a stupid traitor, and I've learned to let that roll off my back," he said in a rare interview about himself.

Also revealed: Elmendorf coaches his daughters' youth soccer team on weekends, has a black Labrador, and generally behaves in exactly the way you'd expect a man named Douglas Elmendorf to behave, even if it means he'll lose friends over the numbers:

David Cutler, an economist at Harvard and Mr. Elmendorf's close friend, agrees. He said the budget office was "doing a great disservice" by ignoring evidence about how to reduce cost savings. He and Mr. Elmendorf have known each other since their student days; Mr. Cutler said the relationship is suffering.

"It's a bit painful," Mr. Cutler said, "which is sad."

Hearing this, Mr. Elmendorf grows quiet, though unapologetic. "Obviously," he said, "I can't lead C.B.O. to reach conclusions to make particular friends of mine happy."

Douglas Elmendorf, avatar of unaffected, average, honorable Americanness, found against all odds in the abyss of the federal government's finances. As a longtime Elmendorf fan, I say it's downright Capra-esque.