The Obama administration says the stimulus worked by creating millions of jobs and staving off a depression - doing so with great transparency. It should be a crowning achievement as Democrats prepare for November’s congressional elections.
Yet voters either reject or ignore those claims, with substantial majorities telling pollsters they don’t think the $862 billion package, known officially as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law 18 months ago this week, has helped much.
Inside the Beltway, the stimulus, with billions of dollars still unspent, has become a pot of loose money that both parties argue over tapping. On the campaign trail, it trips up Democrats, who have to defend record deficits to an angry electorate, and some Republicans, who have been caught taking credit for projects funded by the stimulus bill they opposed.
What is clear is that Congress and the public have lost their appetite for another big round of deficit spending.
“The data on additional stimulus are mixed at best. The electorate’s view that the initial round did not produce the advertised results or even noticeable improvement in the labor market will dominate this fall’s contests,” said William A. Galston, a former Clinton policy adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In March 2009, the Pew Research Center found general support for the stimulus, with 56 percent saying it was a “good idea” and 35 percent responding that it was a “bad idea.” By this summer, though, only 35 percent said it has helped keep unemployment from worsening, while 57 percent said it hasn’t.
Republican candidates have pounced on the public sentiment, arguing that the nation’s high unemployment rate and slow job growth show that the stimulus package simply has not worked.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate trying to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said Mrs. Boxer should be wary of showing up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for stimulus-funded projects.
“It’s obvious they’re not working,” Ms. Fiorina said after meeting with a taxpayer organization in Sacramento. “When the stimulus bill was passed, our unemployment rate was 10.2 percent. Our unemployment rate is now 12.3 percent, and every study that has been done on these public works projects indicates that the projects were not shovel-ready as was promised [and] indicate that there is a huge amount of waste and abuse.”
Similar lines are playing out across the country, including in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican, are running for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat. Mr. Specter’s vote for the stimulus forced him to switch parties and become a Democrat, and he later lost in the primary to Mr. Sestak.
“We were told that this monster spending bill would create jobs and keep unemployment below 8 percent,” Mr. Toomey said in Republicans’ weekly radio address Saturday. “Well, since then we’ve lost 3 million more jobs and the unemployment rate hit 10 percent and in some states it is still well above that.”
Like many of his fellow Republicans campaigning across the country, Mr. Toomey, a former congressman who served three terms, noted that the “so-called stimulus bill” included “$2 million to study exotic ants” and “$30 million for a spring training baseball complex.”
In Nevada, Sharron Angle, the Republican seeking to topple Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has said the package included $72,000 for a study on how monkeys are affected by cocaine.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have been keeping track of lawmakers who opposed the bill and then took credit for projects it funded.
The DSCC list includes Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican running for Delaware’s open Senate seat, getting “caught red-handed” earlier this year taking credit for a Department of Housing and Urban Development project funded through stimulus funds. The DCCC list, dubbed the “Hypocrisy Hall of Fame,” says 129 House Republicans have taken credit for the economic bills they opposed.
“House Republicans need to immediately let their constituents know the truth - will they come out in favor of canceling funding in their congressional districts from President Obama’s economic recovery policies or will they continue taking credit for jobs and local projects they fought against?” said the DCCC’s Ryan Rudominer.
Democrats also say Republicans are gambling that their rhetoric will not haunt them in the fall elections.
“If Republicans want to slam good jobs being created in their districts for the sake of partisan politics, when jobs is the number one issue for voters, to talk about spending, which they can’t speak to credibly given how they exploded the debt when they were in charge, that’s fine with us,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan. “They’ll be seen, rightly, as hypocrites and lacking credibility.”
Mr. Obama continues to campaign on the Recovery Act. On Tuesday, he praised the tax cuts included in the measure.
The administration says the stimulus has shattered all expectations by being free from major fraud and abuse - though Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has released several reports that argue money is being wasted.
When the bill first passed last year the Congressional Budget Office pegged the 10-year cost at $787 billion. But in January, CBO recalculated the cost and said the 10-year tab comes to $862 billion, in part because the unemployment rate was so high that the government was paying out more in benefits than had been predicted a year earlier.
Two top officials who helped Mr. Obama craft and sell the stimulus have either left or announced their departure from the White House. Peter R. Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director, left last month, and Christina Romer, who runs the Council of Economic Advisers, is leaving soon.
Ms. Romer in particular has been bruised by the stimulus. In January 2009, while urging passage of the measure, she released a report arguing that it would keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent.
Instead, the rate climbed past 10 percent and remains at 9.5 percent, helping drown out the administration’s claims that stimulus spending has created or saved up to 3.6 million jobs.
Stimulus opponents said the issue could last well into next year.
“Because the stimulus has failed, one of the first things a Republican-controlled House or Senate could do is a rescissions package to rescind a significant amount of the money that remains unspent in the agencies,” said Rob Collins, president of the American Action Network, a conservative advocacy group.
This weekend, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican and the House chief deputy minority whip, said rolling back the stimulus could save $260 billion.
Republicans have made repeated efforts to try to cut unspent money and use it to pay for more urgent priorities such as unemployment funding.
Although each of the GOP’s efforts was defeated, Democrats changed course just before the congressional summer recess and cut more than $2 billion from unspent stimulus money to extend aid to states for teacher salaries and Medicaid health care costs.
The White House, though, said that would be the only exception.
“Most of the money is either gone or allocated, and there aren’t going to be a lot of opportunities for something like that in the future,” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters.