For Michael Grunwald, the president’s vision matters more than his results
JUDAH BELLIN 14 October 2012 CITY JOURNAL
The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, by Michael Grunwald (Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $28)
Journalist Michael Grunwald wants to convince readers that it’s not President Obama’s record that matters but his ideas. In The New New Deal, his book on Obama’s stimulus plan, Grunwald argues that because the stimulus will transform American industry in the long run, it doesn’t matter that the immediate employment situation has improved so little. The “change” that Obama promised, contends Grunwald, “is a direction, not a destination.” Put differently: the stimulus was “only partly about stimulus” and “also about metamorphosis.” Who needs results when you’re busy shaping the future?
Administration officials certainly saw the stimulus the way Grunwald does. “Stimulus czar” Matt Rogers, for instance, said of biotech investments that “we don’t know which of these approaches will work. . . . We don’t care.” Grunwald endorses this nonchalance, touting the Obama administration’s efforts at industrial policy—such as rejuvenating the renewable-fuel industry and expanding clean-technology loans—as a bold new direction for the American economy. But Grunwald also shows that Obama didn’t always favor such flightiness. On the campaign trail, Obama conceded that investing in alternative energy would “not . . . deal with the immediate crisis” but would “use economic hardship as a rationale for enacting an ideologically driven policy agenda.” As the crisis deepened, however, Obama and his advisors realized that it would allow them to implement bigger projects, and they began referring to the stimulus as a “down payment on long-term goals.” As Grunwald delicately puts it, this was the president’s “one shot to spend boatloads of money pursuing his vision.”
This new attitude drastically changed the nature of the stimulus. Whereas Obama’s advisors had previously stressed “timely, targeted, and temporary” investments, they now made quick and capricious decisions. One advisor described the process as “Someone would make a single phone call, and suddenly it’s, ‘All righty. Put a billion dollars over there.’” Seeking to recreate FDR’s public-works projects, Obama encouraged this haphazard approach. And Grunwald approves, arguing that “it made sense to fund things that deserved funding anyway.” Moreover, he asks rhetorically, would it have been better for Obama to “fill out the $800 billion with things he didn’t want to do?” The idea seems to be that Obama had to spend that sum. Grunwald is so convinced by the righteousness of the stimulus that he cannot conceive of an alternative.