The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era
By Michael Grunwald
Simon & Schuster, $28
Reviewed by TOM HENRY
President Barack Obama's first-term $787 billion stimulus may not have had an impact as obvious as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, lacking a project as visible as the Hoover Dam. But Michael Grunwald’s meticulously researched and well-written book has convinced me it should not be relegated to a footnote in history. Indeed, it was historic, effecting change in education, health care, energy production, transportation and many other facets of society.
There are many fascinating aspects to this book, not the least of which is the recurring theme of how Obama is not nearly as liberal as his critics claim and surely does not deserve the socialist label. Grunwald presents evidence of how Obama got scorned by some fellow Democrats for his near-obsession with bipartisanship, naively expecting to get something in return from Republicans, politically, for the number of efforts he made to accommodate them.
Readers also learn how amazingly random the stimulus figure was, based not so much on an economic sweet spot but on what could realistically get approved by Congress. Several experts of Keynesian economics — those who adhere to the belief that government has the duty to occasionally jump-start sluggish markets through spending — had implored Obama to have a much bigger package.
Of special note to Society of Environmental Journalists members are lengthy segments of the book devoted to energy production.
The Solyndra scandal was represented for political gain as an overblown failure, though it was part of a fledgling industry that was bound to have winners and losers anyway. Solyndra tried to be too much, as Grunwald points out, and failed because of a poor business model. He presents evidence of how solar has performed admirably as an industry, as have other types of green power.
Grunwald's research shows how the stimulus succeeded in setting America off on a historic transition to a low-carbon economy, from electric vehicles to algae-based biofuels for Navy ships.
Grunwald puts the Obama stimulus into a proper historical context, astutely pointing out how the Great Depression was well under way during the Herbert Hoover administration before Roosevelt became president. Obama was forced to chase a moving target from the mess handed to him by George W. Bush following the Wall Street collapse of 2008; the country likely would have sunk a lot deeper before hitting rock bottom if it hadn't been for the stimulus.
It is, of course, impossible to prove unknowns. But economic indicators pointed to a crash in the works that would have been every bit, if not more, devastating as the Great Depression. The greatest value of the stimulus might have been its ability to stop the carnage of a bleeding economy.
Grunwald, a Time magazine senior national correspondent, credits research assistant Walter Alarkon with a big assist for this book. Grunwald said he did more than 400 interviews, in addition to combing through thousands of pages of documents to unravel this complex tale. He does so with bright, authoritative writing that offers a lot of personality and color to go with an amazing array of hard facts.
The New New Deal is an achievement that should stand the test of time, much like Grunwald's much-heralded first book, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.
Tom Henry is an editorial writer-columnist for The (Toledo) Blade. He is a member of SEJ's board of directors and SEJournal's editorial board and is SEJournal's book editor
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.