THE AVENUE SEPTEMBER 3, 2009
There was a lot of standard defense of Team Obama stimulus policy in Vice President Biden’s speech on the recovery act here at Brookings today. And that’s fine, as it’s true there’s increasing evidence the package has had an important stimulative impact on the wounded economy.
And yet, what was more impressive to me than the standard stuff on jobs created and airport and highway projects underway was what was not really standard in the speech, by the standards of the usual discourse around stimulus.
In his remarks here, for example, Biden spoke solidly for “transformation” (and not just near-term job-creation) through the recovery package’s investments. That was refreshing because we have thought for a while that the administration’s signal-sending on the recovery effort has over-emphasized short-term impact and cautions against waste, fraud, and abuse and under-emphasized calls for creativity and transformation.
Today the vice president counted jobs and wore his “sheriff’s hat” proudly, but he also spoke almost more insistently about “laying the platform for the economy of the 21st century.”
It was also good to hear him say that “at the end of the day these investments are about more than creating jobs and a stronger economy, they’re about renewing a sense of hope and possibility” in American communities.
Yet there was something else fresh and non-standard in Biden’s remarks, and that was the vice president’s genuine appreciation for the real complexities of implementation and governance.
It said something that Biden kept saying, as he ticked off stimulus investments (for 200 mile per hour train corridors, in battery research, in health care records), that “This is real,” “This is not fiction,” “These are tangible real things.”
But this affinity for the real really emerged when Biden answered my colleague Amy Liu’s question about how the vice president might be able to provide local communities greater discretion and support in their efforts to knit together the disparate, often rigidly siloed programs of the stimulus package into more coherent interventions across jurisdictional and program lines.
Right off, Biden declared local implementers’ frustrations with the recovery act’s silos and rigidities (which we have discussed here) his own “biggest frustration” and then he waded right into the thicket of discussions of the huge and problematic role states have in the act’s administration, the difficulty of linking and aligning individual programs, and the need to integrate separate stimulus programs to support the “total health of the community.”
True, Biden perhaps under-sold his office’s ability to promote program integration and reward partnership as the next rounds of grant applications are solicited. But even so, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard a vice president of the United States--and in this case one known for his foreign policy bona fides--discourse so sympathetically, and knowledgeably, about the desirability and difficulty of linking up federal transportation, housing, and health programs to “really catalytic impact.”
That was not standard at all and it bodes well for the cause of truly transformational recovery act implementation in the coming months. It can’t but help that state and local leaders now have a federal partner invested in the details and complexities of knitting programs together for success.