March 2009 Issue
by Jay Gentile
PEORIA, FEBRUARY 12, 2009 — Traveling to Central Illinois to cover President Obama’s mid-February visit to a Caterpillar plant in East Peoria, I was struck by the notably palpable lack of awe in the room when the President of the United States arrived. While the majority of the approximately 250 workers assembled at the plant that day were no doubt psyched that the president was in town, the overall low-key vibe of the Peoria event stood in marked contrast with the overflowing excitement that often enveloped the room during Obama’s press conferences in Chicago as president-elect. This was not entirely surprising given that Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of construction equipment, had announced 20,000 layoffs in January. But that could only partly explain the difference in how these somber-looking souls interacted with their commander-in-chief while in his presence. He’d only been in office for three weeks by the time of the Feb. 12 event, but already President Obama had been battered by Washington — appearing slightly less shiny than the pristine halo-sporting messiah that many had seen in him on the campaign trail and within the office of the president-elect.
So, what happened? For starters, the bar had always been set way too high for this particular president and some sort of a coming-down-to-earth was inevitable following his inauguration. But the speed with which his political honeymoon in Washington seemed to have evaporated was truly remarkable. This was partly the fault of the administration itself, which again set early expectations too high by chirping relentlessly about bipartisanship and how Obama would usher in a new era of cooperation between the two parties. The administration also erred on tactics, allowing Democrats in the House to craft much of the original framework of Obama’s economic stimulus bill, loading it with easy ammunition for Republican ridicule such as $30 million to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse in the congressional district of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Headlines such as the Washington Times screamer “Pelosi’s Mouse Slated For $30M Slice of Cheese” were inevitable — and House leadership should have known better.
Provisions such as this (along with a $335 million item for condoms and sex-ed programs) made it all too easy for Republicans to overtake the narrative of the stimulus and define the bill as nothing more than a collection of wasteful pet projects inserted by big-spending liberals in a bloated orgy of big-government “porkulus.” This made it all the more difficult for the more moderate elements of the Republican Party to respond to President Obama’s early bipartisan overtures, such as meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill and inviting them to the White House for cocktails. Thus the end result, with the House voting 246-183 in favor of the stimulus bill with zero Republican support, should not have been all that surprising in this context. But it hurt Obama more than it should have because of how visibly he had wooed Republicans, while winding up with nothing in return.
Yet to place this in historical context, large spending bills like these are almost always partisan — as they get to the heart of what the two parties stand for and believe in. Republicans repeatedly blocked the various economic stimulus plans that President Clinton tried to pass in the early months of his administration and when he finally did pass a bill in August of 1993, Vice President Al Gore had to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to overcome the opposition of six Democratic senators to pass the bill by a 51-50 margin. Unlike Clinton’s bill, all Senate Democrats voted in favor of Obama’s stimulus plan along with three Republicans. And while final passage of Obama’s stimulus bill wasn’t quite as dramatic as Clinton’s, it was a cliff-hanger nonetheless as the vote was kept open in a near-empty Senate chamber for five hours as the Democratic leadership waited for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to return from his mother’s wake in Ohio to give them the 60 votes they needed for final passage of the bill.
This fell far short of the 70 to 80 votes that the Obama Administration had initially hoped for, but in the end a win is a win — and few in Peoria or elsewhere outside of the score-keepers in DC seem to care too much about how the sausage was made, as long as it was made. The final $787 billion, 1,071-page American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law by President Obama in Denver on February 17, just one month after he had taken office. Regardless of the fact that he won ugly, few could deny that it was a huge victory for the young president. The stimulus bill is one of the largest pieces of legislation in U.S. history, larger than any one element of the New Deal. “We’ve passed the most major, sweeping, comprehensive legislation as it relates to economic activity ever, in a 3-week period of time,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters.
Indeed Obama seems to have bet his entire presidency on the success of the stimulus, telling an audience at a Feb. 10 town hall designed to sell the stimulus in Fort Myers, Florida, that if his plan fails, “then you’ll have a new president.” Yet in addition to being a referendum on the Obama presidency, the bill is also a huge test for the larger idea of the role of the federal government in our society. This is by far the biggest “change” that the Obama Administration has delivered thus far: a belief in the ability of government to solve big problems after many years of rigid Republican adherence to Reagan-style “government is the problem” ideology. Obama recognized this in his Feb. 12 speech before the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield immediately following his visit to Peoria. He said Lincoln understood that, “There are certain things that only a union can do…But in recent years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. It’s a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way…Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It cannot refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system…Only a nation can do those things.”
But can the stimulus bill do those things? According to the White House, the plan will save or create 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 — 150,000 of them in Illinois, where the current unemployment rate matches the national average at 7.6 percent. Yet billions of dollars in aid to the states and school construction, widely believed to have more of a stimulative effect on the economy than tax cuts, were removed from the original bill to appease tax cut-craving Republicans. For example, Obama’s “Making Work Pay” tax cut for lower-income individuals and families was lowered so that a $70 billion tax break could be given to middle to upper-class income earners at the request of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who ended up voting against the bill anyway. With many economists citing a current national budget gap of more than $2 trillion and with about one-third of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan going to tax cuts, it’s hard to see how this plan fixes the problem — and Obama has left himself quite vulnerable as a result.
Yet if the campaign is any indication, Obama and company are quick learners and unlikely to repeat their mistakes. To that effect, the president is already lowering expectations for the stimulus, stating correctly that it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle, and now seems much less inclined to let the quest for bipartisanship get in the way of his ambitious legislative agenda. He should engender himself to more Republican support for some of his less ideological endeavors such as aid to the banks or increased troop levels in Afghanistan, but he’s also learned how to harness his power through the use of the bully pulpit to put pressure on Washington by talking directly to the people in places like Peoria. Citizens should expect many more such visits from their president over the next four years, and while they’re likely to become less awestruck by his presence with each passing trip, at least they’re finding out that he’s human after all — and that’s good for both the president and the country.