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Authors: Michael Grunwald

The New New Deal

BOOK: The New New Deal
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Things That Never Were

PART ONE: The Campaign for Change

Chapter 1: A man With a Plan

Chapter 2: The Four Pillars

Chapter 3: The Collapse

Chapter 4: “We Were Staring into the Abyss.”

PART TWO: Making Change

Chapter 5: Ready Before Day One

Chapter 6: The Moment

Chapter 7: The Party of No

Chapter 8: “Wow. We Can Actually Do It.”

Chapter 9: Shirts and Skins

Chapter 10: From Zero to Sixty

Chapter 11: Done Deal

PART THREE: Change in Action

Chapter 12: Ready or Not

Chapter 13: Tea Leaves

Chapter 14: Change is Hard

Chapter 15: Gas Versus Brakes

Chapter 16: Green New World

Chapter 17: Political Recovery

Chapter 18: Not Quite Done

Chapter 19: The Legacy

The Choice


Note on Sources


About the Author


Illustration Credits


To Cristina

my stimulus

Things That Never Were

hange begins with a leap of faith—not a fairy-tale faith that tomorrow will always turn out better than today, or a rah-rah faith in the inevitable destiny of God’s most favored nation, but a more practical belief that the past is not necessarily prologue, that the future doesn’t have to look like the present. It’s progressive in the literal sense, not the polite-way-to-say-liberal sense, a simple faith in the possibility of progress. This basic notion that there’s nothing preordained about the status quo can sound corny, and it doesn’t make change happen. But it makes change possible.

This is what Barack Hussein Obama meant by “the audacity of hope.” And this was the wind behind his 2008 campaign, the promise of not just the change we always hear about but Change We Can Believe In, the idea that a skinny black guy with an inconvenient name and a thin résumé could ride a dream to the White House. It was easy to mock his Yes We Can hubris, his grandiose vows to transcend the pettiness of our politics and bridge the partisan divide, his messianic pledges to slow the rise of the oceans and usher in a new birth of freedom.
But he inspired people. After eight exhausting years of George W. Bush—the partisan warfare, the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the surpluses alchemized into record deficits, the inept response to a
drowned city, and finally the epic financial and economic collapse—millions of Americans were ready for a leap of faith.

What happened to that change—and that faith—is the central story of the Obama administration.

The prevailing narrative has emphasized the unfulfilled promise, the change we’re still waiting for, the gap between the lofty poetry of Yes We Can and the transactional tawdriness of If We Can Round Up The Votes. The partisan divide remained un-bridged, the pettiness of our politics un-transcended. And the economy stubbornly refused to comply with Obama’s rhetoric of revival, setting the tone for a narrative of disappointment: Wasn’t the audacity of hope supposed to make people feel better? Hadn’t he promised to “reinvent the economy to seize the future”?
What happened to the strong middle class and the new American century and all those other nice things that were supposed to materialize after his historic election? “Hope and change” became a partisan punch line, the wink behind Sarah Palin’s sly taunt: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?”

In the 2010 congressional elections, Americans gave a preliminary answer, voting to change the change, smacking down Democrats, rewarding Republicans for resisting the Obama agenda. Even the president toned down the hopey-changey stuff as his approval ratings slumped, reminding supporters that he was elected to make things better over time, not to make things perfect overnight.

“We’ve always known that lasting change wouldn’t come quickly or easily,” he wrote in the strangely muted email announcing his reelection campaign. “It never does.”

That’s part of the story: Change is hard.

But there’s more to the story: Change is happening.

It isn’t happening because a politician waved a magic wand. It’s happening the way change happens in American democracy, through legislation that Congress passes and a president signs and bureaucrats implement.

This is the story of Obama’s most ambitious and least understood piece of legislation, the purest distillation of what he meant by change.
It aimed to repair a broken economy while reforming our approach to energy, health care, education, taxation, transportation, and more. It’s starting to change our cars and our trains, the way we produce and consume electricity, the way our schools teach, our doctors practice, and our government spends our money.

It’s even trying to change photosynthesis, which is as good a place as any to begin the story.

ure, photosynthesis has been working reasonably well for 3.5 billion years, making plants grow, releasing the oxygen that sustains life on earth. But at the dawn of the Obama administration, it wasn’t working well enough for the president’s hard-charging energy secretary, Steven Chu, a quantum physicist who had won a Nobel Prize for trapping and cooling atoms with lasers.
Chu had the toothy grin, dorky glasses, and wispy build of a tech nerd, but he had a steely side, too. He didn’t accept that problems were unsolvable unless there was scientific proof.

Chu was at the vanguard of a new brigade of egghead elites—a new, ultra-confident Best and Brightest—who marched into Obama’s Washington because they believed all that hopey-changey stuff. At sixty, he was a renewable energy source in his own right, exuding the boyish enthusiasm of a junior high geek dissecting his first frog. He worked eighty hours a week trying to rev up the sluggish Department of Energy, then spent his spare time doing the kinds of things geniuses do, like trying to cure cancer with nanotechnology, and using an atom interferometer to confirm a key prediction of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
His mere presence at this perennial backwater of a bureaucracy felt surreal, as if Einstein had reported for duty as labor secretary. Most of his predecessors had been obscure politicians or businessmen, and one had been a dentist. But after three decades playing with gamma rays and quarks at Bell Labs, Stanford, and Berkeley, Chu honestly believed he could help Obama cure America’s addiction to oil and help save the planet from global warming. He was a tone-deaf politician, but he quickly became Obama’s most compelling green evangelist, preaching
the gospel of clean energy, sharing the good news of solar power, geothermal heat pumps, and energy-saving white roofs.

He wanted biofuels in his scripture, too. Fuels derived from biomass had been hyped as the great green hope, the renewable key to a world without oil. As a farm state senator, Obama had always portrayed ethanol and other biofuels as miracle elixirs. But Chu suspected they would never outcompete fossil fuels as long as they relied on photosynthesis. It was a chemistry thing. Harvesting sunlight to grow corn or switchgrass or even algae was just an awfully circuitous strategy for producing fuel, like a journey from New York to Washington via San Francisco. More than 99 percent of the solar energy was wasted along the route. “Photosynthesis,” Chu liked to complain, “is too damn inefficient.”

Fortunately, a new agency called ARPA-E had just been created inside Chu’s department to solve problems like photosynthesis.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy was a government incubator for high-risk, high-reward, save-the-world private energy research, the kind of place where Q from the James Bond movies would want to work. Modeled after DARPA, the legendary Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet and GPS technology, it was designed to finance out-of-the-box, early-stage experiments that probably wouldn’t pan out, but just might point the way toward truly clean coal or a truly smart grid or a truly green economy if they did. Chu was ARPA-E’s intellectual godfather; he had proposed the agency while serving on a National Academy of Sciences panel on U.S. competitiveness.
He had handpicked its first director, his former Berkeley colleague Arunava Majumdar. And he had set its reach-for-the-stars tone, making it clear that ARPA-E wasn’t about incremental improvements. The agency’s mantra was: Game-changers only.

ARPA-E felt more like a high-tech start-up than a federal bureaucracy, with a foyer cluttered with intimidating textbooks on “tribology,” “constructal theory,” and “nanostructure physics,” and walls dotted with dreamy Yes We Can messages from Martin Luther King Jr. (“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now”), John F. Kennedy (“We need men who can dream of things that never were”), and Chu himself
(“Resist the urge to accept the status quo”). It was exempt from the usual civil service rules, and it attracted an absurdly high-powered staff of brainiacs: a thermodynamics expert from Intel who had published sixty-five scientific papers, an MIT electrical engineering professor who had founded two start-ups, a clean-tech venture capitalist who also taught material science at MIT. Majumdar, a world-renowned energy expert, had run Berkeley’s nanotechnology institute before Chu persuaded him to leave his tenured chair—as well as his wife, two children, and a yellow Lab—behind in California to make change in Washington. His deputy, Duke biochemistry professor Eric Toone, was also a biotech entrepreneur who had helped develop a promising glaucoma drug.

None of these men—they were all men—were in public service because they needed a job. They were the kind of dreamers President Kennedy had in mind, imagining things that never were: wind turbines shaped like jet engines, man-made substitutes for rare-earth minerals, electrical transformers the size of suitcases instead of kitchens. They saw energy as the challenge of their era, and ARPA-E as their moon mission. They were practical men who understood that even elegant laboratory advances in batteries or biofuels had to be scalable and affordable to be useful, but they were also true believers in the church of progress, confident they would reach those moons in due time.

“We chemists would say energy is a kinetic problem, not a thermodynamic problem,” Toone says. “There’s always a way around kinetic problems.”

BOOK: The New New Deal
9.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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