Michael Grunwald's fascinating new book, The New New Deal, is bound to be a lasting word on Barack Obama's presidency. It closely examines the early stimulus spending bill and argues that it, well, pretty much saved us from a free-falling depression. What we got instead, a Great Recession with endemic joblessness, was something to be grateful for. Sort of. That was never a message the American people were going to hear, much less love.
Read it and weep. The book itself is evidence of something amiss, as if the butler used a candlestick in the library as a silencing mechanism. This tells an engaging story we in the American public should already know, but believe me, this is indeed a new narrative of the massive domestic policy bill, the little known American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Grunwalk, a senior national correspondent at Time magazine, makes the case for Barack Obama's signature stimulus bill more vividly and persuasively than the president ever did. The messaging got so bad the White House began to disown the word "stimulus" itself. What was missing from Obama's presidency, from the bitterly cold first day, was the voice that moved multitudes. It's a mystery that has not yet been solved.
The youthful Obama soared into office on the waves of his own oratory. Soon after he became the author of a New Deal for our times, as sweeping, if not more so, than Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the author contends. Grunwald counts many of the ways that $787 million was spent to keep the economy afloat: including clean energy projects such as clean coal plants and wind turbines, high-speed rail, road construction projects, the Race to the Top educational program, and $10 billion for more National Institute of Health research. Mostly good things, if a little heavy on old infrastructure spending, not always as "shovel-ready" as it seemed.
Vice President Joseph Biden oversaw the nitty gritty details and made sure that the moving parts were in fact moving in sync in a historically transparent process. "He was the perfect guy for the job," Grunwald said in an interview. "A people person."
Be that as it may, Biden could not break a fierce partisan divide in his alma mater, the Senate, to cut the new president a break even in the worst of times. Obama spent only a few years in that august club, but spent much of it on book tour and running for president. As a result, the White House did not wield much influence. Negotiations with that body bogged down to the usual suspects, three or four centrist Republicans and Democrats who wielded power beyond the size of their state and statesmanship. In the most egregious example, Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, emerged as a stubborn force standing against school construction funds in the package. She just wasn't going to let it happen, as a matter of some principle, and had Peter Orszag, the Office of Management and Budget director, begging her, "Do it for me." Grunwald peppers this Washington drama with dialogue and characters in action, which makes it a rollicking good read. The only character it's hard to get a fix on—you guessed it—is the cool and cerebral Obama, who did not grant Grunwald an interview.
Grunwald is mildly scornful of the daily beast news media, which he pokes at for missing a seismic story in plain sight. It's a brave stance he's taking, all alone out there, but he defends it well. More importantly, he captures the colossal gulfs between policy and politics, between Democrats and Republicans, and to a lesser extent, the House and the Senate. Over and over, the phrase, "get to 60," is used as a shorthand for enough Senate votes to break a filibuster—except they never do filibuster. In the trenches, House Democratic leaders are portrayed as frustrated with the coddled individual senators, protesting life in the Capitol can't go on this way. But it was the way of the world. As poetic justice for taking the House Democrats for granted, the 2010 election brought a new crowd of trouble, a new House Republican majority to town.
In Oval Office huddles, Obama mastered the economic stimulus policy, and cobbled together historic legislation in a hurry, but unwisely left the politics open to Republicans. Two new Republican governors, of Florida and Wisconsin, turned down millions of federal dollars for high-speed rails projects in their states early in the game. Hard to believe, but they were only harbingers of the hard rain yet to come. Long story short, the hostile Republicans, acting in concert, managed to make the Recovery Act untouchable—and the sad part is, they didn't even have to fight for it in a public dialogue. It's almost as if they won a duel by default. The silence was—and is—deafening. That is why The New New Deal is so timely as a new framework for viewing the major achievements of Obama's presidency.
The same kind of sphinx-like silence surrounds healthcare reform, too, Obama's other major accomplishment in office. (But we've been down that road before.) In vain, the president tried to quell the other party's anger by granting a wrongheaded extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010. He even tried to make friends with the new crowd in the House, in the lowest point in his presidency. It took the brinkmanship of the debt ceiling debacle for him to see that his powers of persuasion was going nowhere with congressional Republicans. It's between the lines of the book, but to me it's the moral of the story. As president, Obama has consistently overestimated the power of reason—and perhaps the potency of his charms on his enemies. And he cut short the conversation he started with those who really wanted to hear from him: the American people.