The Recovery Act was the biggest, most transformative energy bill in history, financing unprecedented government investments in a smarter grid, cleaner coal, energy efficiency in every imaginable form, “green-collar” job training, electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them, advanced biofuels and the refineries to brew them, renewable power from the sun, the wind, and the heat below the earth, and factories to manufacture all that green stuff in the United States. In 1999, President Bill Clinton proposed a five-year $6.3 billion clean-energy bill that was dismissed as unrealistic and quickly shelved. A decade later, during his first month in office, Obama poured $90 billion into clean energy with a stroke of his pen, leveraging an additional $100 billion in private capital. The entire renewable-energy industry was on the brink of death after the 2008 financial crisis, but thanks to the stimulus, Obama has kept his promise to double the generation of renewable power during his first term.
The stimulus was also the biggest and most transformative education reform bill since the Great Society, shaking up public schools with a “Race to the Top” competition designed to reward innovation and punish mediocrity. It was a big and transformative health-care bill, too, laying the foundation for Obama’s even bigger and more transformative reforms a year later; for example, it poured $27 billion into computerizing America’s pen-and-paper medical system, which should reduce redundant tests, dangerous drug interactions, and fatal errors by doctors with chicken-scratch handwriting. It included America’s biggest foray into industrial policy since FDR, the biggest expansion of anti-poverty initiatives since LBJ, the biggest middle-class tax cut since Ronald Reagan, and the biggest infusion of research money ever. It sent $8 billion into a new high-speed passenger rail network, the biggest new transportation initiative since the interstate highways, and another $7 billion to expand the country’s existing high-speed Internet network to underserved communities, a modern twist on the New Deal’s rural electrification.
Critics often argue that while the New Deal left behind iconic monuments — the Hoover Dam, Skyline Drive, Fort Knox — the stimulus will leave a mundane legacy of sewage plants, repaved potholes, and state employees who would have been laid off without it. But it’s creating its own icons: the world’s largest wind and solar plants, the country’s first cellulosic ethanol refineries, zero-energy border stations, a bullet train that will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours. It’s also restoring old icons: the Brooklyn Bridge and the Bay Bridge, the imperiled Everglades and the dammed-up Elwha River, Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the Staten Island ferry terminal. It’s creating an advanced-battery industry for electric vehicles almost entirely from scratch, financing factories that are supposed to boost the U.S. share of global capacity from 1 percent when Obama took office to about 40 percent in 2015. Its only new government agency, ARPA-E, an incubator for cutting-edge energy research modeled on the Pentagon’s DARPA, is already producing breakthroughs that will help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.
This is just a taste of Michael Grunwald’s near perfect defense of Obama’s stimulus package and, by extension, his presidency.