- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When “Pat and Barb,” the parents of a half-dozen children in Northern Virginia, received their $3,000 stimulus check, Pat said “it was like a shot of Red Bull” to their wallets.

Sure, they have bills to pay. And food and gas are taking a bigger bite out of their budget - more than $150 for gas alone for their 2004 Chevy minivan and 2000 Saturn.

“But with gas as high as it is, part of that money went in the tank to see the grandparents,” Pat said after returning last week from a 1,500-mile, two-week vacation to Crawfordsville, Ind.

Pat, 47, works for a financial institution. Barb, 44, works hard at home. She did not want their full names disclosed to protect the privacy of their children, one of whom has Down syndrome.

Would Pat and Barb, who epitomize the coveted Catholic voting bloc this presidential election season, like another stimulus package? You bet.

Would they like a president with an economic recovery plan that will allow Pat the occasional family outing without feeling guilty? Ditto.

Pat earns a salary that puts him squarely in the median income range for Fairfax County residents (between $57,000 and $87,000 for married households). He realizes how fortunate his eight-member family is in these tough economic times, when many others are being laid off, losing their homes and having great difficulty paying for the basic necessities of food, medicine and energy.

“We are counting our blessings. We certainly have bills to pay, but we are not destitute,” Pat said.

In a recent Washington Times poll, in which 147 readers responded, 36 percent said they paid bills with their stimulus checks, 29 percent saved the money and 9 percent “splurged on fun items.”

One who responded that he had spent his stimulus check on other uses said he gave the money to his church. Another noted that four years ago, she prepaid $565 for 500 gallons of oil to heat her home for the winter. The price this year is $1,080 for the same amount. So she bought propane.

“To some, these numbers seem small, but to many of us in middle America, these price jumps are huge and difficult to pay,” the woman wrote. “The two parties need to stop all the finger pointing and get to work solving the nation’s energy problems.”

Most polls indicate that Americans are worried about the economy, which has become their No. 1 campaign issue, surpassing the Iraq war. How many think there is a connection between the cost of the war on terror and the tanking U.S. economy is not clear beyond anecdote and rhetoric.

“For us, it’s the greater importance than what happens in Iraq,” Barb said.

Any wonder why not a single week goes by without the presidential candidates addressing the economy at an orchestrated political event featuring working-class citizens as a backdrop?

Last week, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has said the economy is not his strength, charged that the Bush administration “failed to meet their responsibilities to manage the government.” He said the economy had grown by 60 percent in eight years, and he promised to balance the federal budget by 2013.

On the same day, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said he favors tax cuts for middle-class workers - like Pat and Barb - and tax increases for those earning more than $250,000 annually. He also proposes government subsidies for a host of programs including college and health care, as well as eliminating taxes for retirees making less than $50,000 annually.

Mr. McCain predictably called his opponent a tax-and-spend liberal.

Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain wants to maintain President Bush’s tax cuts, as well as double the $3,500 deduction for parents - like Pat and Barb.

With the rising cost of gas the most visible sign of the economic downturn, Mr. McCain also continues to call for a gas-tax holiday.

Mr. Obama predictably chided his opponent for pushing nothing more than a short-term gimmick.

Mr. Obama called for a second economic stimulus package to provide a $50 billion shot of Red Bull for the economy aimed at those facing foreclosure and rising energy costs.

But Republicans and Democrats in Congress cannot agree on a second stimulus package or a bill that would help distressed homeowners.

Economic analysts disagree about whether the stimulus package really benefits the struggling economy. Consumer spending rose slightly in June, with discount retailers reporting increased sales, according to the Associated Press, but consumer confidence remains low and retailers are bracing for a less than lucrative back-to-school shopping season next month.

Neither candidate has revealed how he intends to fund his economic policies beyond the standard attacks on government waste and management.

Mr. McCain’s economic proposals last week received the support of 300 economists, many of them former Republican officials.

But Mr. McCain also distanced himself from one of his economic advisers, former Sen. Phil Gramm, who in an interview with The Washington Times said the media have hyped the state of the nation’s economic slowdown and helped create a “mental recession” magnified by a penchant to complain.

Amid the back-and-forth promises from politicians, average Americans like Pat and Barb are making hard choices and finding ways to cut spending.

Barb said her grocery list hasn’t changed in the past year. But the tab has grown by about $75, if she discounts having to feed a 15-year-old son, “who eats everything in sight,” and her special-needs youngster, who requires a gluten-free diet.

While the couple cannot afford summer camp, four of the children were able to join the swim club this year - for $50 each.

A big chunk of the family’s stimulus check, Pat said, was “very helpful with paying for the kids’ activities when perhaps in the past we did not have as much luxury in allowing them to participate.”

A bigger concern for Barb is paying for health care, particularly with a child who is treated by a variety of specialists. “The costs got up, but the benefits don’t,” she said.

The couple chose to have their youngest son even though there were indications during her pregnancy that he would be born with something like Down syndrome.

“I joke that every time I get pregnant, that it is a vote of confidence from God,” Barb said.

Speaking of votes, Pat and Barb are “not particularly political people.” Barb said they are not registered with any political party and do not go out and knock on doors during campaign season.

“We vote less along party lines and more by our own moral convictions,” she said.

“What I want to have a candidate say is that they recognize that it’s not one issue but all these economic issues together that affect our family and many, many we know that are middle-class people,” she said. “It’s health insurance, it’s gas and food prices that continue to rise but my husband’s income has not.

“I want [the candidates] to say, ‘I have a plan,’ that I can agree on that’s workable and that will get my vote,” she said.

The presidential candidates have a few short months to demonstrate that their economic policies can provide this Northern Virginia family, and those like them, with another shot of Red Bull for their wallets.

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