For the past three years, Washington journalists and politicos have obsessed over a 57-page memo that Barack Obama’s incoming economic team prepared for him in late 2008. The document has achieved such totemic status for good reason: It decisively shaped the Obama administration’s initial response to the economic crisis. The memo outlined the president-elect’s options for dealing with the teetering banks, the cash-strapped automakers, and the country’s tidal wave of foreclosures. Above all, the memo laid out options for a massive stimulus package—the mix of tax cuts and government spending designed to end the recession and boost employment. The economic team presented the contents of the memo to Obama at his transition headquarters on December 16, 2008, at which point they collectively settled on a proposed stimulus of nearly $800 billion.
Last month, my friend and former colleague, Ryan Lizza, wrote a much-discussed piece in The New Yorker based on a copy of this and several other previously-unpublished memos. The piece and the corresponding memo described the stimulus options that Obama’s team—including Larry Summers, his top economic adviser, and Christy Romer, soon to be his chief White House economist—ultimately sent him. The options ranged from about $550 billion to just under $900 billion.
Intriguingly, Lizza also noted that Romer “was frustrated that she wasn’t allowed to present an even larger option,” suggesting that while the memo he obtained may have been the end of the story, it was far from the whole story.
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