Obama and Republicans Clash Over Stimulus Bill, One Year Later
WASHINGTON (nytimes)â€” President Obama defended his year-old economic stimulus package on Wednesday, as Republicans and Democrats took to the Internet and the airwaves to wage a furious partisan battle over whether the bill was a monumental waste of taxpayer money or had rescued the economy from catastrophe.
One year to the day after he signed the package into law, Mr. Obama appeared at the White House alongside small-business owners who have hired workers with federal money from the measure. He declared that the bill had created or saved as many as two million jobs, lowered taxes for 95 percent of Americans, and spared the nation the next Great Depression.
There is little dispute among economists that the measure has kept the jobless rate from being even higher than it is. But with unemployment at 9.7 percent on average, and higher in some states, the president conceded that there was widespread confusion about the bill, and a sense that it had not lived up to expectations.
â€œIf weâ€™re honest, part of the controversy also is that despite the extraordinary work that has been done through the Recovery Act, millions of Americans are still without jobs,â€ Mr. Obama said. â€œMillions more are struggling to make ends meet. So it doesnâ€™t feel like much of a recovery yet. I understand that.â€
Mr. Obamaâ€™s appearance was part of an intense sales pitch by the White House to convince Americans of the virtues of the stimulus bill, which has become a kind of political albatross for Democrats as they head into this yearâ€™s midterm elections. White House officials concede that they have made mistakes in framing the public discussion of the measure; many Americans, for example, confuse the stimulus bill with Wall Street bailouts.
This week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., cabinet secretaries and other officials from throughout the administration are fanning out across the country to 35 communities, where they are talking up the measure and announcing new programs, like one unveiled by Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood on Wednesday to pay for 50 new transportation projects.
At a time when both parties are talking about the virtues of working together, the anniversary touched off a bitter dispute between them, with each using the day to write its own political narrative around the bill. Democrats sought to portray Republicans as hypocrites for voting against the bill and then rushing to claim their share of stimulus money for projects in their home districts, while Republicans painted the measure as a failure.
The Republican National Committee posted a Web video aimed at Mr. Obama titled â€œBroken Promises,â€ and the House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, issued a report titled â€œWhere are the Jobs? A Look Back at One Year of So-called â€˜Stimulus.â€™ â€
The report argues that the measure is â€œchockful of wasteful government spendingâ€ and presents a list of what Republicans regard as questionable projects, singling out, for example, â€œ$10,000 to purchase a liquid nitrogen cryo freezer to store pallid sturgeon spermâ€ and $1.25 million for a Northwestern University professor â€œto use electric fish from the Amazon to study how animals take in sensory information to move quickly in any direction.â€
In interviews and e-mail messages, Mr. Boehner and other leading Republicans, including Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana and the Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, argued that Mr. Obama could hardly claim credit for improvements in the economy with three million jobs lost over the past year, unemployment at nearly 10 percent and a deficit at $1.6 trillion.
Economists say that Mr. Obama and the Republicans are both, in a sense, correct. The economy has indeed lost jobs on Mr. Obamaâ€™s watch, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently calculated that the recovery package, formally called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, had saved or created between 900,000 and 2.3 million jobs.
â€œThe economy has shed some three million jobs over the past year, but it would have lost closer to five million without stimulus,â€ said Mark Zandi, who is currently advising Congressional Democrats but also advised Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. â€œThe economy is still struggling, but it would have been much worse without stimulus.â€
Mr. Zandi said: â€œItâ€™s legitimate to debate the efficiency of the stimulus; one could say, â€˜Youâ€™re spending $800 billion plus and look at what weâ€™re getting for it.â€™ But to say that this has not helped the job market is not correct.â€
Even the cost of the package was in dispute on Wednesday. The White House still uses a figure of $787 billion, the price tag of the bill when it passed Congress a little more than a year ago. But the Congressional Budget Office has calculated that the actual cost is $862 billion, which is the figure Republicans are using.
As the debate played out on Wednesday, Democrats pressed hard at the hypocrite angle. The Democratic National Committee issued a video of its own, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said Republicans were â€œtrying to have it both ways.â€
The left-leaning Center for American Progress, a close ally of the Obama administration, issued a list of lawmakers who voted against the recovery act â€œand then sought and/or took credit for its benefitsâ€ â€” a list that, the group said, included more than half of all Republicans in the House and nearly half in the Senate.
Mr. Obama said at the White House, â€œThere are those, letâ€™s face it, across the aisle who have tried to score political points by attacking what we did â€” even as many of them show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts.â€
One of the Democratsâ€™ main targets is Mr. Cantor, who has fought for his share of federal financing to support a high-speed rail project in his home state, Virginia. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Cantor argued that he should not have to â€œembrace what I thought was a misguided packageâ€ to seek federal money for a project he said, he had been pushing for nine years.
Accusing the White House of â€œcheap politics,â€ he said, â€œThat is just the type of attitude in Washington that turns the public off.â€