ne of the things I like most about Barack Obama is the methodical way his mind seems to work. He approaches problems openly and calmly, looks at the facts carefully, and avails himself of many points of view. He isn’t satisfied with off-the-shelf answers, is guided more by the long view than the short term, and by empirical rather than ideological considerations, and in general makes decisions at his own pace. He seems, in short, almost the opposite of George W. Bush, who famously went with his gut, kept his circle of advisers extremely small, and stuck too long with decisions made too quickly. If Bush was the Decider, Obama is the Deliberator.
The irony is that Obama is taking office at a time when he will have little opportunity to exercise his deliberateness. Because of the economic crisis, he must make huge decisions very quickly—in particular, how to spend upward of a trillion dollars on an economic stimulus plan built around infrastructure and clean energy.
Such investments, if done right, could do wonders for the country. And the outlines of the package he and his team sketched out in December make great sense—a combination of "shovel-ready" construction projects to jump-start employment and longer-term initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases.
Still, if you spend that much money that quickly, without sufficient time to air all the options and weigh all the pros and cons, you’re liable to make mistakes. And unlike, say, tax laws, infrastructure decisions are not reversible. Once the concrete begins to set, you’re stuck with them.
Right now, all of Washington seems to agree that we should spend a big chunk of that $1 trillion on highways. As Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation argues in this issue ("Back on Tracks"), taxpayer money could be more wisely invested in expanding and electrifying the nation’s underfinanced and overburdened freight rail system. Doing so would allow trains to carry most of the cargo now being shipped by the long-haul trucks that clog and tear up our interstates. The result would be less road congestion, fewer traffic fatalities, reduced road repair bills, and—because trains are ten to twenty times more efficient than trucks at hauling cargo—dramatic decreases in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet despite these astonishing potential benefits, almost no one in Washington is talking about major investments in freight rail.
One thing that is getting talked up is nuclear power. Because it produces zero carbon emissions, and because—according to the industry—a new generation of nuclear plants is simpler and less expensive to build, even many liberals who once opposed nuclear power outright are now open to expanding it. Obama is a qualified supporter, as is his nominee for energy secretary, Steven Chu. So was I, until journalist Mariah Blake (now a Washington Monthly editor) came to us with her story ("Bad Reactors") about the actual costs of "next-generation" nuclear plants, which turn out to be astronomical. Now, I’m coming to the conclusion that we’d be insane to put another dime of taxpayer money into nuclear power.
The true costs of nuclear energy and the advantages of freight rail are not widely understood among the political classes in Washington. That’s not because they’re state secrets. It’s because facts like these don’t circulate outside very specialized circles until there’s a full national debate on a policy subject. And since the agenda of the party in power generally determines what gets debated, there are many important discussions we simply haven’t had for eight years. We’ve spent more time arguing over whether global warming exists than over which policies would fight it most effectively, because of the Bush administration’s hostility to the whole subject. Similarly, we are now scrambling to figure out how best to regulate the murkier aspects of high finance because regulation in general simply wasn’t something the Bush administration was interested in doing.
With the Republican Party out of power, it’s now possible to have these kinds of discussions. Unfortunately, there is not much time in which to have them. The Democrats feel not only the pressure to respond to the economic crisis quickly, but also the temptation to jam through as much legislation as possible while the political moment is right.
What we need to do is figure out how to cram eight years’ worth of policy conversation into the next six months. That may not be as impossible as it sounds. If technology can shrink the news cycle, maybe it can shrink the policy debate cycle, too. The Obama administration already has a nascent effort to keep its campaign supporters engaged through policy discussions on its change.gov website. Journalists and bloggers could follow suit by shifting some of their focus—as I suspect their audiences may now want them to—from politics to policy. America can be a deliberative democracy again. We just have to learn how to do it fast.