I don’t have a whole lot to say about the sprawling NYT Magazine piece on Barack Obama. People seem to think that it broke some new ground, but it looked to me like the same President seeking the same bipartisanship, deflecting criticism as just about tactics or messaging, that we’ve seen in the Oval Office for close to two years. The only thing I’ll add to the commentary is a bit on this paragraph:
While proud of his record, Obama has already begun thinking about what went wrong — and what he needs to do to change course for the next two years. He has spent what one aide called “a lot of time talking about Obama 2.0” with his new interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and his deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina. During our hour together, Obama told me he had no regrets about the broad direction of his presidency. But he did identify what he called “tactical lessons.” He let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works. Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.
In particular, this idea that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” I know Republicans are having a field day with this one, but it’s worth pushing back on this. The Administration never offered grants for public works projects which are truly shovel-ready; i.e. all they require is a shovel. They could have funded jobs to clean up and maintain distressed and vacant properties. They could have funded jobs to beautify national, state and local parks. They could have funded jobs to paint white roofs on every commercial building in America.
But that wasn’t on offer. Instead, they made an attempt at building or fixing roads, bridges and runways, along with some long-term infrastructure goals like a smart energy grid, rural broadband, health IT and high speed rail. All of these are fine, but they were never going to be shovel-ready. Even in the context of those jobs, which require permitting and EIRs and record-keeping, there were worthier options for quick spending, such as fixing water treatment systems and century-old pipes. But if you wanted to get people jobs, there was and is plenty of work to do, which would get money in people’s hands and improve the living conditions of a neighborhood.
They chose not to go down that path for a couple reasons, I gather. . . . [cont’d.] One, those jobs aren’t “sexy” enough, nor do they provide a lot of spending as an individual project (although put them in all 50 states and you’ve got something). Two, they won’t do this the easy way – creating a 21st-century Civilian Conservation Corps, or otherwise directly funding the projects. Somehow, the US Census was able to ramp up and ramp down, come in under budget, and move efficiently toward its goal, with public spending and public management. The TANF Emergency Fund, a job-subsidy program which was run through social services agencies with public funding, was similarly successful, with very big bang for the buck. This fetish for the only worthy job being a private job, however, stopped the White House from replicating this success in the public works sector. By the way, maintenance is also infrastructure, even if you can’t put a big sign in the ground saying “Brought to you by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
You don’t need to do an environmental survey to give someone a stick and tell them to pick up leaves in a park. This notion that nothing is “shovel-ready” is silly.
UPDATE: A reminder that the stimulus package didn’t even provide all that much infrastructure spending, about 1/7 of the total funding, so acting like the problem was “shovel-ready” projects and not the lack of actual infrastructure spending is wrong.