Barack Obama: A Quiet Revolutionary

August 27, 2010 | Jerome Roos,

By Jerome E. Roos, Breakthrough Fellow

This article was cross-posted from Reflections on a Revolution

Barack Obama is not stupid. It was probably clear to him from the very start that taking a radically centrist approach would alienate his liberal friends without necessarily bringing him any closer to his conservative opponents. Yet on a range of issues, from health care to climate change, Obama stoically -- or stubbornly, according to some -- continued down his Middle Path.

Granted, his seemingly tepid approach may not be earning him friends. But it is allowing his administration to lay low while it unleashes the most radical transformation of the American economy since World War II. As Michael Grunwald reported in this fascinating article in TIME Magazine yesterday, Obama's Recovery Act is quietly beginning to revolutionize the U.S. energy sector -- the very backbone of the nation's flailing economy -- tearing down an entire economic paradigm in his wake.

Look through the centrist rhetoric for a second, and what you will see is without a doubt the most progressive U.S. President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Grunwald:

[...] the battle over the Recovery Act's short-term rescue has obscured its more enduring mission: a long-term push to change the country. It was about jobs, sure, but also about fighting oil addiction and global warming, transforming health care and education, and building a competitive 21st century economy. Some Republicans have called it an under-the-radar scramble to advance Obama's agenda -- and they've got a point.

About half a year ago, John Judis of the New Republic made a similar observation in relation to Obama's agenda on regulation and the role of the state in the economy -- dubbing it Obama's Quiet Revolution. Countering the sense of betrayal and disappointment felt by most liberals, Judis noted how:

[...] there is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for--but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. [...] he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama's revival of [the regulatory] agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

While the majority of Obama's "under-the-radar" stimulus program has focused on boosting aggregate demand through tax cuts and a number of shovel-ready infrastructure projects, a very sizable minority is being channeled straight into a large array of clean tech programs. As Grunwald rightly points out, "any of those programs would have been a revolution in its own right." In fact,

[...] the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S. The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet.

The Recovery Act also very specifically addresses a crucial issue that the Breakthrough Institute has been hammering on for years -- namely that the main obstacle to the Green Economy is the fact that clean energy simply remains too expensive to realistically compete with fossil fuels. In order to bring about a lasting transition, we need to make clean energy cheap, which requires unprecedented investments in R&D of breakthrough technologies.

Grunwald hits the nail on the head, noting that:

Today, grid-scale storage, solar energy and many other green technologies are too costly to compete without subsidies. That's why the stimulus launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a blue-sky fund inspired by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the incubator for GPS and the M-16 rifle as well as the Internet. Located in an office building a block from the rest of the Energy Department, ARPA-E will finance energy research too risky for private funders, focusing on speculative technologies that might dramatically cut the cost of, say, carbon capture -- or not. "We're taking chances, because that's how you put a man on the moon," says director Arun Majumdar, a materials scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Our idea is it's O.K. to fail. You think America's pioneers never failed?"

Clearly, what this all goes back to is the role of the state in spurring on long-term economic development. As Stephen Ezell from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation just pointed out in an excellent article, we should no longer allow ourselves to be misled by utterly discredited neoliberal rhetoric on the predatory nature of the 'Leviathan state' and the dangers of industrial policy. After all,

"Without government, there's no way we would've done this in the U.S.," A123 chief technology officer Bart Riley told TIME. "But now you're going to see the [green tech] industry reach critical mass here."

After three decades of neoliberal ignorance, bringing us the worst economic crisis in over seventy years, what we needed was a leader with the guts to pursue a bold new industrial policy.

That leader, my friends, is Barack Obama -- our Quiet Revolutionary in the Oval Office.

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