As Michael Grunwald argues in his book "The New New Deal," Obama's stimulus is filled with pet projects the president squeezed in under the cloak of crisis. He started the transition to a low-carbon economy, pumping money into the largest wind farm, America's first refineries to process biofuels, and half a dozen of the world's largest solar arrays. He also slipped in his education agenda to promote data-driven reforms of public schools.
Obama heeded his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's advice to "never let a crisis go to waste" and used the political opening offered to him by events to do the things he wanted. Even when Obama backed down to Republicans on the Bush tax cuts in the waning days of 2010, he got an extension of unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut in return. As David Corn argues in "Showdown," Obama was able to sneak in $238 billion in stimulus spending and another $200 billion in other economic priorities — including tax credits for the working poor, renewable energy, and education — by yielding on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It was classic political horse trading.
Of course, not everyone was impressed. Sean Wilentz argues that if Obama was made of tougher stuff, he and his congressional colleagues would have altered the Senate filibuster rules when they had a 60-seat majority there, removing an obstacle that had thwarted so many of his legislative priorities. Perhaps, but the president would have had to pull off this controversial move while trying to sell the public on his auto bailout, his stimulus plan and health care reform. Afghanistan and Iraq were presenting challenges, too. He would have faced opposition from Democratic senators — the late Sen. Robert Byrd would have objected strenuously — which would have eaten up valuable political capital as he wrestled in his own locker room. Having run on openness, transparency and fair dealing, such a maneuver would have effectively dealt away the goodwill that had elected him president. Part of that goodwill may very well be what sustains him today, despite people's feelings about his lousy stewardship of the economy.