Michael Grunwald followed the money, and it took him someplace he didn't expect: to the success story of President Barack Obama's $787 billion Recovery Act for economic stimulus.
Yes, that stimulus — the one vilified and mocked from both sides of the political spectrum as a flop and a folly, the one that helped spark a Republican resurgence that would blast into the midterm elections, less than two years after Obama signed the stimulus bill on Feb. 17, 2009. (He signed it into law within a month of his inauguration, a fact that opponents who criticize him for putting health care reform before the economy seem to forget; others confuse the stimulus with the $700 billion bank bailout passed during the Bush administration's waning days.)
Grunwald, a senior national correspondent for Time magazine, is an award-winning investigative journalist and Miami resident whose first book was the widely praised The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. For The New New Deal, he draws on more than 400 sources, talking to people everywhere from cabinet meetings to factory floors. And he crunches all those daunting numbers.
As it turns out, Grunwald discovers, the stimulus achieved almost all of its goals, becoming "the biggest and most transformative energy bill in U.S. history. . . . Also the biggest and most transformative education reform bill since the Great Society." It created "the biggest middle-class tax cut since Ronald Reagan, and the biggest infusion of research money ever," and more than 100,000 infrastructure projects, from fish hatcheries to particle accelerators.
And every one of those programs, and thousands more, put Americans to work. Independent analysts, Grunwald writes, "believe the Recovery Act came close to achieving its goal of saving or creating at least 3 million jobs."
Has the Recovery Act completely reversed the plummeting U.S. economy of 2008 and returned the nation to prosperity? No. But Grunwald builds a deeply researched, meticulously supported case that it has laid the foundation for such a return — and prevented things from getting a whole lot worse.
The New New Deal surveys a huge range of projects and programs supported and initiated by the Recovery Act and in doing so illustrates one reason why the stimulus has gotten such a bad — and inaccurate — rap. It is so complex that it can't be summed up in a sound bite or a tweet. Grunwald, a succinct and well-organized writer, needs more than 450 pages, not counting notes, to describe it — and that's a lot of homework for the average short-attention-span American.
But, in Grunwald's hands, it is a fascinating and illuminating story. He brings it to life with a style that is lively and informal and with a focus on the people involved, from Obama's staffers to CEOs of companies to economists and more. He does not hesitate to criticize those from across the political spectrum whom he finds to be incompetent, obstructive or self-aggrandizing (and he finds plenty of all three).
One of the book's many subjects is the stimulus' funding of energy projects — including the infamous Solyndra, which Grunwald calls a "pseudo-scandal." In 2009, he writes, the company was "the toast of Silicon Valley," with investors like the Walton family of Walmart fame, Virgin's Richard Branson and oilman George Kaiser. The Bush administration had "tried to speed up its $585 million loan application" for federal money. The loan did go through under the Recovery Act — and when the solar panel manufacturing company went bust, Obama took the heat.
Yet overall, Grunwald writes, that failure was a blip among thousands of successes. Thanks to the stimulus, solar and other renewable energy sources are the fastest growing industry in the United States. The forecast in 2009 was that it would take two decades for wind power to grow from 25 to 40 gigawatts; it took two years. Solar is growing even more quickly, and the costs to consumers of those technologies are dropping rapidly. By the end of 2010, the wind and solar power industries employed more than 200,000 Americans — more than the coal industry.
Grunwald gathers many more details about green energy, as well as about education, infrastructure, research and aid to states that saved the jobs of teachers, police officers and more. He also offers plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the stimulus was created and implemented — and the politics that colored it all.
Whatever your political leanings might be, it's always a good idea to step away from the slogans and talking points and try to understand the policies behind them — especially when those policies affect us all. The New New Deal is a solid place to start.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.