We can say this for Joe Biden: He saw the stimulus backlash coming. As he told me last June, he penned a memo for the president as soon as the $787 billion Recovery Act passed, warning that public opinion could turn sour. Obama responded by charging Biden with the task of policing the massive project. “Last memo I’ve written him,” Biden joked months later.
What Biden did not foresee is the shape the backlash would take. Early last year, in his memo to Obama, Biden was most concerned with waste, corruption or a lack of transparency. He has worked mightily since then to keep the projects on track, and as he shows in a report released Tuesday night, his effort has basically been a success. In the first year, the stimulus money has been spent out faster than the Congressional Budget Office had predicted. It has created or saved somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.4 million jobs–according to congressional, White House and independent macroeconomic analyses. It has added entire precentage points to the GDP. And with a few small exceptions–the turtle crossing in Florida, for example–there have so far been no major scandals, no outrages, no clear examples of corruption or theft or mismanagement.
And yet, the American people still hate the stimulus, and believe that their money is being wasted. A recent poll by CNN found that 56 percent of Americans now oppose the stimulus, and three out of four Americans believe at least half the money spent has been wasted. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that projects were included for purely political reasons, and 21 percent say that nearly all the money has been wasted. In short, the crowning legislative achievement of the first year of Obama’s presidency is, as Biden predicted, a political disaster.
Pollsters tell us that the main reason for this skepticism is that most people are still hurting. Jobs are still being shed. Foreclosures continue apace. Anxiety reigns. The stimulus, which was sold as the medicine to save a sick nation, has failed to fully heal the patient. This fact has become a central selling point of the Republican Party, which is riding high on the fact that it has little real power in a nation of angry voters. As House Republican leader John Boehner recently crowed: “Washington Democrats promised that the trillion-dollar ‘stimulus’ would create jobs ‘immediately,’ keep the unemployment rate from going above eight percent and that 90 percent of the jobs created would be private-sector jobs. . . . None of that has occurred.”
The logical flaw here is easily glossed over in what passes for our political debate. It is of course possible for the stimulus to have “worked”–created jobs, substantially limited economic pain, put billions of dollars directly into the pockets of millions of needy families–and still not solved the nation’s economic problems. And in fact, that is what has happened: The economy was far sicker than anyone, including the White House, expected when the stimulus bill was drafted. The medicine has worked, to the extent it could, though the patient has not yet recovered.
And so here is the rub for Biden: He foresaw the public souring on the stimulus, but did not predict the reason. Even as he succeeded in preventing the money from being misspent in any major way–at least as far as we now know–he was unable to prevent the collapse in public confidence.
In his report Tuesday to the president, Biden tries to declare victory. “The work you set us out to do a year ago is going well,” he writes to Obama. “I want to thank you for the confidence you showed in giving me this important task and I believe that we have served the American people well.”
In these words, there lies a great irony. Biden may have accomplished his task, but he has still failed in his goal.
To read the full “Annual Report To The President On Progress Implementing The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act of 2009” report released Tuesday, click here.