WASHINGTON _ Few of her White House predecessors could make a hyena laugh, but Laura D'Andrea Tyson's quick wit flashes even when she's translating economic theory into "baby talk" for novices.
What's wrong with the economy?
Why did the White House recently cut its economic growth estimates so sharply for this year and next?
With massive layoffs still dominating headlines and consumer confidence in the economy so low, could another recession be in the cards?
Whoa, she signals, raising her hands in a gesture that says there's no need to rush. This afternoon is unusual; she has already met with President Clinton and has some time to chat.
"Trust me," said a smiling Tyson, the first woman to head the President's Council of Economic Advisers. "We're starting to do better. The check is in the mail."
But why is growth so slow, so incredibly sluggish?
"The economy is quite sluggish, not incredibly sluggish," she corrected in a schoolmarm's tone.
Blame the global recession, she said, huge defense cuts, the long-term restructuring of American industry, mammoth federal budget deficits. . .
But why, according to newly revised government data, is the economy in worse shape now than it was last year, when the electorate was so upset about pocketbook issues that it ousted George Bush from the White House?
For a second, the 46-year-old former economics professor from Bayonne, N.J., frowns in contemplation, then breaks into another grin.
Don't forget, she prods gently, that Bush pulled out all stops to boost the economy before Election Day. There was a big speedup in defense spending, and employers were ordered to withhold less federal tax from workers' paychecks. While those moves made the economy better last year, they made it worse this year.
Plus, she added, "a lot of income that might have been spent in '93 was shifted into '92 in anticipation of higher taxes."
Ironically, that was her boss's doing; many people and businesses spent money in 1992 rather than waiting until this year because they feared _ correctly _ that if Clinton were elected, he would raise taxes.
"It's true the recovery is a slower recovery," she said. "But job creation is starting to look good."
Words to be expected from a political appointee? Maybe.
But Washington insiders, private economists and other people who know her say Tyson is much more than a cheerleader for the Clinton Administration.
"People here are very impressed," said Barry P. Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who advised the Carter, Nixon and Johnson administrations and was initially critical of Tyson's appointment. "She's very effective and bluntly honest."
When chosen for the job in December, Tyson was a relatively unknown professor whose classes were popular because she could explain complex issues in terms any student could understand.
But she's not a macroeconomist _ someone who studies the broad forces that affect the economy _ and that put her out of the mainstream. Her specialties are trade, high technology and international competitiveness.
After graduating summa cum laude from Smith College in 1969, Tyson earned a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She taught four years at Princeton University and for the last 15 years was at the University of California at Berkeley.
To join the Clinton Administration, Tyson moved east with her husband, Erik Tarloff, a screenwriter who has worked on such shows as "MASH" and "All in the Family." (Her surname Tyson is from her first marriage).
Tyson and Tarloff have a …