As I recall, it was less than six weeks into the new Obama administration when my drinking buddy, Dave, started referring to the "failed presidency." Little did I know then how consistent this was with Republican congressional strategy. But what I never figured out is how Dave got on the distribution list for secret GOP talking points.
Now comes Michael Grunwald's instant history, "The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era," which argues that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a landmark piece of legislation, not only pulling the nation out of what might have been a second Great Depression, but also laying the foundation for a new 21st century economy based on clean energy, strong infrastructure, improved education, and more efficient health care.
The "stimulus" was a "success"? Dave wouldn't buy it but Grunwald's fleshy tome documents it in tedious detail from campaign to transition to deal-making to implementation.
The author has recently made the rounds of the political talk shows that are one of the primary manifestations of our dysfunctional national politics to share the story of how congressional Republicans resolved from the beginning of the Obama administration to oppose everything, support nothing, and never give hope and change "a clean victory."
Obama won the legislative battle but the GOP won the message war, portraying the contents of the $780 billion package as a "potpourri of silliness" with such success that Democrats eventually expunged the discredited word "stimulus" from their vocabularies. No, Grunwald writes, Nancy Pelosi never proposed to include a $30 million program to save an endangered mouse. Republicans succeeded in dirtying the President's victory nevertheless.
It's a truism that American voters have short memories. Grunwald's book is a potent if bulky antidote to such amnesia, reminding readers that after Obama's election in November 2008 we were on the brink of a new Great Depression, that millions of jobs were lost before Obama even took office, that President George W. Bush passe
d the financial bailout, that Obama did rescue the auto industry, and ultimately that the stimulus package did work.
But there's another important story in this book about Obama's insistence that his first major piece of legislation not only stimulate a collapsing economy but that it begin to address the priorities he set during his campaign. So, there was aid to states, rebates to individual taxpayers, tax cuts, and "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects in the bill, but also major new investments in renewable energy development, health research, education reform and more.
Nor does Grunwald's story end with the legislative process. He follows how the money was spent in each of these key sectors and how, having seen how the Republicans besmirched the legislation, Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to police the implementation to keep it clean and controversy-free. It's government in action, folks.
I suppose if you want history to be politically relevant, even the "first draft of history," you can't expect great literature. Amazon.com and the 2012 election would not have waited. The result of haste, unfortunately, is that journalists like Grunwald resort to a seemingly inexhaustible inventory of clichés and bad metaphors.
"Demand was plummeting like Wile E. Coyote clutching an anvil," Grunwald wrote, presumably with a straight face, before shifting abruptly from cartoons to epidemiology. "New home sales were the lowest in half a century and foreclosures were spreading like Ebola."
And in the interest of humanizing the tale, Grunwald includes a little bit too much color. Why quote Rahm Emmanuel so accurately so often? Why even mention the unspecified "wardrobe malfunction" of a second-tier presidential adviser? If I were Grunwald's editor I would have given this text a 30 percent haircut.
For all of this, "The New New Deal" is an important book. It provides readers with what seems in short supply these days – a little perspective. It argues, contrary to much contemporary sentiment, that government can have a constructive role in the development of the nation. No matter what the Tea Party thinks.
"The rising fury about government is curiously disconnected from the facts," Grunwald writes. "Our federal tax burden is the lowest it's been in decades; Obama made it even lower. The federal deficit is high, but it hasn't increased under Obama, and it's got almost nothing to do with the Recovery Act or the bank bailouts that came before it."
So, our national election will be fought on the simple matter of whether the purpose of government is to "promote great national missions and a spirit of common purpose," as Grunwald frames it, or to give "your hard-earned money to freeloaders." But the outcome will tell us more about whether or not the facts still matter.
Bradshaw Hovey is a planner at the University at Buffalo, a former Courier Express Reporter and a past staffer for liberal politicians.
The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era
By Michael Grunwald
Simon and Schuster528 pages, $28