4. Unlike the New Deal, the stimulus will leave no legacy.
Nostalgic liberals often complain that the stimulus lacks iconic Hoover Dams and Skyline Drives. In fact, it’s creating its own icons: zero-energy border stations, state-of-the-art battery factories, some of the world’s largest wind farms and half a dozen of the largest solar farms. But its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.
The stimulus was the biggest and most transformative energy bill in history, pouring an astonishing $90 billion into record expansions of every imaginable form of clean energy, from renewables to electric vehicles. It included $27 billion to computerize health care. Its Race to the Top was a landmark in education reform. Its high-speed rail program was the most ambitious transportation initiative since the interstates. It extended high-speed Internet to underserved communities, a modern twist on the New Deal’s rural electrification, and modernized the New Deal-era unemployment insurance system. And much more.
America didn’t need a new Hoover Dam, although the bill did finance the largest dam-removal project ever. The stimulus will leave a different legacy: a down payment on a greener, more competitive economy with a healthier, better-educated, better-connected workforce.
5. The stimulus showed that Obama can’t legislate.
Obama is often criticized for punting the stimulus to Capitol Hill. But while Congress wrote the bill, the president dictated its principles and most of its specific content. Its major initiatives on tax cuts, energy, education, health care and the economy came straight out of his campaign agenda. The final bill emerged from a list of spending items drafted by the White House.
Obama didn’t get everything he wanted. For example, Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) killed his plan for a school construction binge. But the president needed her vote. The deals that got the Recovery Act done served notice that after campaigning as a change-the-system outsider, Obama would govern as a work-the-system insider. He was pragmatic enough to recognize that a bill that can’t pass Congress can’t make change.
Michael Grunwald, a former Washington Post reporter, is a senior national correspondent at Time magazine and the author of “The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.”
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