The New New Deal, Part III: Making It Matter

Monday, September 10th, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

In my past two posts, I’ve been reviewing Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. First, we saw the challenges of drafting and passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Then 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.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list, we have articles on the harmful impacts of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, the GOP’s “make-or-break” strategy for 2012, the increasing use of solitary confinement in US prisons, NPR moving to reject the he-said, she-said approach to journalism, and the real world coordination between Super PACs and political campaigns.

If you have any feedback on these articles, or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, please let us know below or at the Winning Progressive Facebook page.


Alabama’s Shame: HB56 and the War on Immigrants – a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about the serious impacts that Alabama’s anti-immigrant law has had on Latinos – citizens, legal permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants – in the state.

2012 or Never - an argument that Republicans, faced with demographic changes that will make it increasingly difficult for the GOP to win future elections, are pursuing a risky strategy of betting everything on the 2012 elections so that they can push through a reactionary agenda that it would take progressives decades to fully reverse.

The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement – an in-depth look at the increasing use of solitary confinement in US prisons – where there are 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement – and the disastrous impacts such confinement can have on a prisoner’s mental and emotional well-being.

NPR Tries to Get Its Pressthink Right - a story on how NPR’s new ethics handbook is working to discourage the type of “he-said, she-said” reporting that has done so much to degrade political reporting in the US.

Fine Line Between “Super PACs” and Campaigns – a report on how much of a fiction the purported prohibition of coordination between Super PACs and the campaigns they support really is.

Counteract Conservative Media Bias

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Here at Winning Progressive our primary goals are to inform our readers on the issues of the day from a progressive perspective and to encourage our readers to make their progressive voices heard.  We progressives are faced with a well-organized conservative messaging machine and a national media that consists primarily of conservative talking points, meaningless he-said she-said reporting, and mindless drivel about famous people and fake scandals.  In order to counteract the vapidness of our media and the conservative megaphone that we face, it is up to all of us progressives to take the progressive message to the American people, the media, the White House, members of the House and Senate, and the letters to the editor pages of our local newspapers, so that voters and elected officials constantly hear a positive message about what progressive policies can do to improve our country.

The need for we progressives to make our own messaging machine is perfectly illustrated by a study of media coverage of the 2012 President Election released yesterday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.  Title “The Media Primary,” the study quantified the percentage of positive, neutral, and negative media coverage President Obama and each of the GOP candidates for President received from May 2 to October 9.  The results were shocking only if you somehow still believed the myth of the “liberal media”:

One man running for president has suffered the most unrelentingly negative treatment of all, the study found: Barack Obama. Though covered largely as president rather than a candidate, negative assessments of Obama have outweighed positive by a ratio of almost 4-1. Those assessments of the president have also been substantially more negative than positive every one of the 23 weeks studied. And in no week during these five months was more than 10% of the coverage about the president positive in tone.

. . . .

As for Barack Obama, 9% of the news coverage about him over the last five months has registered as positive while 34% has been negative and 57% has been neutral or largely straight news accounting of events. In each of the 23 weeks studied, his negative coverage exceeded his positive coverage by more than 20 percentage points. And in none of those weeks did his negative coverage fall below 30%.  The tone of Obama’s coverage on blogs, while still overwhelmingly negative, was slightly better—14% positive and 36% negative.

. . . .

Even the week of May 2-8, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Obama’s coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

The results of the Pew study were even more stark when you compare the coverage of President Obama to that of every GOP Presidential candidate.  Even though most of those GOP candidates are hardly qualified to be dog catchers, much less President, coverage of all of them was far more favorable than was coverage of our President:

Faced with this type of blatant media bias, it is up to us to take the progressive message to the American people.  That is why Winning Progressive is declaring this week to be National Progressive Letter Writing Week, in which we urge all of our readers to write at least one letter to the editor of their local newspaper in order to help counteract the negative coverage that the media provides of our side of the political divide.  Links for submitting such letters to the editor to newspapers in many states are available here.  And if you send a letter or get one published, shoot us an e-mail and let us know.

Weekend Reading List

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

For this weekend’s reading list, we have articles on how public relations has overtaken journalism, biased television news coverage of climate change, why Elizabeth Warren would be good for business, how Germany has achieved economic success while maintaining strong unions and efficient government, and the close relationship between charter school magnates and Ohio’s Republican leadership.

If you have any feedback on these articles, or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, please let us know at Winning Progressive’s Facebook page.

True Enough: The Second Age of PR – A report from the Columbia Journalism Review about how the public relations industry has overtaken journalism and continues to grow.

Opponents of EPA Climate Action Dominate TV News Airwaves – A Media Matters report about how biased in favor of the conservative anti-science view television “news” coverage of climate change is.

The Warren CourtHow the consumer protections that Elizabeth Warren fights for are good not only for consumers, but also for business and the economy as a whole, as a well-functioning economy requires that consumers are well-informed

The German Example - A New York Times essay about how Germany, with its strong labor unions and efficient government, is outperforming the U.S. economically

House Cozy With Charter School Lobby - a Columbus Dispatch investigation about how a charter school magnate who gives big campaign contributions to Ohio Republicans is helping to write Ohio budget provisions that benefit his charter schools

Sarah Palin for President?!?!? A Sign of Just How Pitiful Today’s GOP Is

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

I’m sitting in an airport in Cleveland and for some reason Sarah Palin is back on television, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer breathlessly talking about Palin as a potential candidate for President in 2012.  Besides reminding me why I no longer watch cable “news” (with the exception of Rachel Maddow, of course), Palin’s reappearance is a reminder of how sad today’s Republican Party has become.

Over the past few weeks, a number of potential Republican candidates for President have decided not to run including, most significantly, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.  On the flip side, not-so-stellar candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have launched what are bound to be failed campaigns.  With no shining lights having announced so far, the field is looking about as hapless as the Chicago Cubs trying to win a World Series.

Given this situation, it is perhaps not surprising that the media has decided to try to revive Palin’s career.  Not only is she appearing all the time on CNN again, but even the New York Times and a Room For Debate feature about What a Palin Bid Would Mean For the GOP.   One of the five essays in that feature is entitled The Party Needs Her, and contends that:

Like a shot in the arm, Sarah Palin would enliven the presidential race and engage the Republican base as no one else could.

The thought that a Sarah Palin candidacy is what Republicans need pretty much says it all about the unseriousness and lack of ability to lead of today’s GOP.  Ms. Palin is a person who struggles to offer even a single coherent thought on policy issues, cannot name a newspaper that she reads, was unable to hack being Governor of one of the smallest (population-wise) states in the country for even one whole term, and couldn’t find it in her to offer even a smidgen of apology or contrition after a Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – who Palin had targeted with violent imagery and language – was almost assassinated.

Our nation and world face serious issues that require serious adult leadership to address them. Ms. Palin is plainly not prepared to offer such leadership and the fact that the Republican base and conservative media chearleaders see Ms. Palin as a legitimate leader is yet further evidence that today’s Republican Party is not prepared to offer leadership either.

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

For this weekend’s reading list, we have articles about the need to engage in cost-benefit analysis of domestic homeland security spending, how the media encourages the fact-free nature of conservative political discourse, a collection of articles about the impacts of private foundations on education policy, and the right wing effort to smear climate scientists.

If you have any feedback on these articles, or would like to recommend an article for next weekend’s reading list, please let us know at Winning Progressive’s Facebook page.

Terror, Security, and Money – an article about how there has been virtually no cost-benefit or risk assessment carried out in evaluating the more than $1 trillion in domestic homeland security spending since September 11, 2001.

Inside the GOP’s Fact-Free Nation – an overview of how the conservative media amplifies and encourages the fact-free approach to politics taken by much of the Republican Party today

The Best Resources for Learning About the Role of Private Foundations in Education Policy – a blog post from Larry Ferlazzo that compiles a list of articles providing a critical view of the role of large foundations in promoting charter schools and other education “reform” policies

Climategate: What Really Happened? – an article by Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones about the right wing’s attempt to smear climate scientists