Too few of us appreciate how successful Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been, or how tenuous many of those successes still are. (More)

The New New Deal, Part III: Making It Matter (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has considered Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. Thursday we saw the challenges of drafting and passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yesterday we looked at the challenges of making the stimulus bill work. Today we interview Michael Grunwald and see how the ARRA’s successes became ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’ … until now.

Michael Grunwald is a senior national correspondent for Time magazine. Before joining Time, Grunwald was a congressional correspondent, New York bureau chief, and investigative reporter for the Washington Post, and a local and national reporter at the Boston Globe. He has received the George Polk Award for national reporting, the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting, the Society of Environmental Journalists award for in-depth reporting, and numerous other journalism awards.

A bias “towards laziness and groupthink”

Journalism has been called “the first rough draft of history,” and for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that draft was indeed rough. I asked Michael Grunwald about that in our email interview this week:

NCB: The New New Deal reflects far more in-depth research than most political reporting. How long did you spend researching the book, and how did you do your research?

MG: Thanks for your kind words. I spent about two years researching and writing the book. I live in the public policy paradise of South Beach, so I had to do a lot of travel to D.C. and around the country to do interviews and site visits. I ended up interviewing more than 400 people, including just about everyone in the administration who was involved with the stimulus except for the president. Vice President Biden also let me sit in on a couple Cabinet meetings, and I tracked down a whole bunch of documents.

NCB: Your book could have been subtitled “The Greatest Story Never Told,” and in it you mention one reason the media didn’t cover American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stories well: the media focus more on problems, less on policies that solve problems, and even less on policies that prevent problems. As Democrats are more likely to say government can help solve and prevent problems, while Republicans focus on the problems of government itself, does this negativity bias in political reporting work out in practice to a bias in favor of Republicans?

MG: That’s an interesting thought. I’d say the media’s main bias is towards laziness and groupthink; obviously there wasn’t a lot of negativity bias when President Bush did that Mission Accomplished thing in the flight suit. And I think it’s appropriate that the media should keep a skeptical eye on the government. But when it came to the stimulus the conventional wisdom that this thing was an $800 billion joke just seemed to overwhelm all sense of proportion and common sense. Washington political reporters in particular are deeply uninterested in public policy, which isn’t necessarily a partisan bias.

NCB: Your book also details a Republican strategy – both while the ARRA was being debated and during its implication – of repeating more lies more often and more persistently than media fact-checkers could respond. Given the inherent difficulties and limits of fact-checking, are we becoming a nation where elections can be won or lost, and major policies implemented or blocked, based on calculated lies?

MG: Yes. Although I’m not entirely sure how new that phenomenon is. Remember: FDR campaigned in 1932 on a balanced budget.

NCB: A recent Jay Rosen Press Think article explores the media ethic of savviness: a focus on whether a rhetorical gambit succeeds, regardless of its truth and indeed more impressively if it is untrue, akin to admiring a successful bluff in poker. Do you think media admiration for the savviness of the GOP attacks on the ARRA has played into a reluctance to publicize the successes your book documents?

MG: Maybe a little. I think the savvy bias tends to apply more towards political campaigns. When it comes to policy the Republican gambits were really savvy! I’d say that reluctance boils down to four factors: the relentless Republican campaign of distortion; the Democratic tendency to quibble (too small, too many tax cuts, etc) rather than defend the stimulus; the media’s unwillingness to adjudicate the truth (especially when both sides were basically saying it was a mess); and, perhaps most important, the inherent problem of trying to sell a jobs bill when jobs were disappearing.

I share Grunwald’s conclusion about that last point. While titled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we saw Thursday that long-term projects (reinvestment) still had to pass the Three Ts test of boosting consumer demand (recovery). The ARRA was drafted and discussed as a jobs bill, and that made it hard to defend in the spring and summer of 2009 when our economy continued to hemorrhage jobs.

Many of us had not yet gazed into the abyss of a Second Great Depression, what Grunwald calls “our ‘Holy S**t!’ moment.” Indeed many still haven’t. The Second Great Depression did not happen, and it’s hard to appreciate how narrowly we averted it, and how much worse our lives would have been.

Many also expected, or hoped, that the ARRA would have an immediate effect. The bill passed in February 2009, yet over 600,000 Americans lost their jobs in March and over a half-million more in April. Job losses began to drop in May, as stimulus money began to flow through the system, and by December 2009 job growth had returned. Yet that had left nine months for “the first rough draft of history” to be of the ARRA as a failure, and by then “laziness and groupthink” had taken hold.

Not “Will it work?” but “Will it matter?”

As the Department of Energy’s new research program ARPA-E weighed grant proposals, reviewers were told to ask not “Will it work?” but “Will it matter?” That is, their mission was not to fund research projects that offered only marginal boosts to existing technology. Their mission was to fund big ideas that could transform energy production and usage … research that would matter.

That is also a good metaphor for the entire Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and for President Obama’s promise of “Change We Can Believe In.” In the 2008 campaign he outlined the four pillars of what he has called a New Foundation – energy, education, health care, and an economy built on community – and I also asked Grunwald about that legacy:

NCB: You document an impressive list of ARRA successes toward building a sustainable 21st century nation, yet some could still be undone if Republicans cut their community support. Which of the ARRA’s successes do you think would be most vulnerable under a Romney administration with a Republican Congress?

MG: High speed rail, advanced battery factories for electric vehicles, renewable electricity projects, non-farm biofuels projects, refundable tax cuts for the working poor, unemployment insurance modernization.

That is a frightening list, and I would add the Affordable Care Act as well. All of those are at stake in November, as is Republicans’ eagerness for a war with Iran.

Yet consider if President Obama and Democrats win in November. Romney has promised he’ll create 12 million jobs in his first term, but in fact that’s what economic analysts expect to happen anyway over the next four years. Some of those jobs will have roots in the ARRA, and if President Obama is still in office he and Democrats will justly get the credit. The 2016 election would thus be about whether to continue the successes begun under President Obama and Democrats. If he and the Democratic nominee make that case well, we could well see Democrats hold the White House for at least three consecutive terms …

… and that has happened only twice in the past 80 years: with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman from 1932-1952, and then with Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1980-1992. Each of those three-in-a-row wins transformed our political dialogue for an entire generation.

President Obama and Democrats made the ARRA law. President Obama and Democrats made the ARRA work. For the next 58 days, we must work to make the ARRA matter.


Happy Saturday!