New book details GOP’s early opposition to Obama stimulus

A new book provides fresh details about the level of early Republican opposition to President Obama's economic stimulus package, which set the stage for the partisan retrenchment that has persisted throughout his term. 

“The New New Deal,” authored by Time Magazine's Michael Grunwald, quotes Vice President Joe Biden as saying seven different Republican senators had told him before the Obama inauguration that the GOP would oppose Obama's agenda en masse, and it reports that then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) surprised members of the GOP leadership team by vowing in a private meeting that no Republicans would support the Democratic recovery plan.

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The account is the latest deep-dive into what is now understood to be a pivotal moment of the young Obama administration - when congressional Republican leaders decided to aggressively fight the president’s first major piece of legislation. 

While Democrats and some political analysts have criticized Obama and his team for naively expecting at least some cooperation from Republicans following his historic election, Biden told Grunwald in an interview that he learned early on that wouldn’t happen. “I spoke to seven different Republican senators who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything,’” Biden is quoted as saying. “The way it was characterized to me was: ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.’”

The book paints Cantor and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) as two of the conservative leaders of a strategy to deny Obama bipartisan support for the stimulus. Cantor, Grunwald reports, relied on private polls to persuade rank-and-file GOP lawmakers that they were on safe political ground in opposing the agenda of the popular new president.

“We’re not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years,” Cantor is quoted as saying. “We’re not rolling over ... We’re going to fight these guys.”

In a more detailed account of a scene that has been previously reported, Grunwald writes that hours before Obama was to pitch his stimulus directly to Republican House members, Cantor boldly declared in a private conference meeting, “We’re not going to lose any Republicans.” The vow surprised members of Cantor’s vote-counting team, who had planned on setting expectations lower for the stimulus vote. Ultimately, Cantor prevailed, and Republicans in the House unanimously opposed the stimulus bill.  

Grunwald’s 518-page book is a history of the stimulus that details the economic crisis and legislative horse-trading that produced the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act at the outset of the Obama presidency in 2009. It argues that while Republicans succeeded in turning the $787 billion measure into a political liability for Democrats, the law largely worked. “The Recovery Act helped ease a lot of pain,” Grunwald writes, “and helped avert a depression that would have caused immeasurable pain.”

“It didn’t produce robust growth,” he continued later, “but it made a nightmarish system better.”

Like other narratives of the early Obama years, however, Grunwald’s account faults the president’s team for its political messaging and economic projections, including the now-infamous memo by Obama advisers that predicted the unemployment rate would not rise about 8 percent if the stimulus were enacted. As Republicans are quick to remind, the jobless rate immediately broke that threshold and has not fallen below 8 percent since.

The book also includes colorful and profanity-laced interviews with former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, and with former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was a principal architect of the law. Obey clashed frequently with the White House over the size, scope and details of the package.

Grunwald’s book is set for release on Aug. 14.