The New New Deal - a terrific book just out by Time senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald - is an encyclopedia of stories that most other reporters missed every day for the past three years because the stories were as unsexy as they were important. Grunwald zeroes in on the nuts and bolts and trials and tribulations of implementing the president’s 2009 stimulus package. (See, I told you it’s not sexy, just hugely important.)
His account explains how things work and don’t work in Washington. For example, I’ve always wondered how the Obama people blew even the simple branding of the stimulus, and Grunwald provides all the details, including how they ended up with a logo for the too-small signs that adorn the stimulus act’s projects that is as unappealing and indecipherable as the name of the act itself. (Seriously, why didn’t they use the title of Grunwald’s book instead of “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”?)
My favorite story is Grunwald’s six-page description of a program in the Department of Energy intended to create lots of jobs and make long-lasting, nationwide improvements in energy efficiency by weatherizing - as in caulking windows and doors - 600,000 low-income homes. It seemed like a simple, logical way to deploy $200 million of the stimulus. But it was sidetracked by a tangle of red tape and bureaucratic fights, into which was thrust Claire Broido Johnson, a hard-driving young Harvard MBA and entrepreneur lured into the Obama change mission.
In Grunwald’s fly-on-the-wall account, Johnson faces off against career bureaucrats who sneer at her fervor and delight in finding obstacles to put in her way. For example, they dredge up the question of whether a 1930s law, much beloved by labor unions, requiring the federal government to pay “prevailing wage” on federal construction projects applied to workers caulking windows and, if it did, how and how quickly that prevailing wage could be determined. (It took months.)
Books like this, written a year or more after the events, have multiple advantages. Perspective is easier to come by. And getting people to talk after they’ve left their jobs, or at least when they’re not in the thick of starting them, is also a lot easier. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of stories we should have been reading all along.
Unlike covering government agency announcements or congressional mud fights, or looking for leaks of personnel appointments or firings, these are the stories that make government correct itself in real time by raising issues and holding people accountable. And they’re the stories that give credit to and encourage people like Johnson - who made her 600,000-home goal but is quoted by Grunwald at the end of this section as saying: “I’ll never work for the federal government again.”
As we approach either a second Obama administration or a new Romney administration, editors and producers should be thinking about how to gear up for this kind of coverage. It really matters. If Grunwald’s work is any indication, it can make for a lot of good reads, too.
Conflict disclosure: Although I do not know Grunwald, his editor at Simon & Schuster is my editor and longtime friend. Also, in his reference notes in the book, he refers in a complimentary way to the book I wrote last year about education reform and President Obama’s Race to the Top.