The Real Story of the Stimulus

Michael Grunwald

Photograph by David Whitman

While on vacation last week I mostly read Game of Thrones books but also found the time for Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. I can summarize the merits of this book very simply—normally when you read a policy book on a subject you cover, you end up analyzing in terms of whether you think it contains arguments and information that you want other people to learn, but Grunwald’s delivered a book that taught me a great deal on a subject I thought I knew a great deal about.

That subject is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the “stimulus bill” derided by conservatives as failed, by liberals as inadequate, and swept under the rug by Democrats as something they don’t care to talk about. Grunwald’s core point is that whether you think it was “big enough” or “worked,” this bill was—in Vice President Joe Biden’s immortal phrase—kind of a BFD. Its tax provisions fulfilled a major Obama campaign pledge to make the code more progressive and more supportive of low-income workers, and its spending provisions brought forth hundreds of billions of dollars in activity. And yet even though there’s been lots of coverage of the overall macroeconomic situation and plenty of GOP attacks on small elements taken out of context, there’s been very little explanation of the full extent of what ARRA is doing.

It turns out that while I was gone, Slate editor David Plotz did a Q&A with Grunwald on the book, so I don’t want to resummarize it. But the basic issue is that as well as being a macroeconomic stability measure, ARRA was an important energy bill, a significant transportation bill, a reform of K-12 education, a reform of unemployment insurance, a major upgrade of health care IT, among other things. In other words, it’s a series of measures worth trying to understand on their own terms and whose impact may be with the country for years or decades. The New New Deal adds a bit to the tick-tock and reportage on the overall trajectory of Obama administration economic policy, but what it really does is give us the first in-depth look at what started happening after ARRA was signed and the congressional reporters moved on to new controversies.