The economic stimulus failed to win the future

Luke Frans Executive Director, Resurgent Republic
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In February 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law his $787 billion stimulus, which he lauded as “the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history.” Two years later, the government’s stimulus spending has failed to win the future, and public opinion has responded accordingly.

Under the stimulus, the economy has lost more than 2.5 million jobs. The unemployment rate is 9.0 percent today and has remained above the administration’s promised 8 percent peak for 24 consecutive months. The overall price tag has increased to $814 billion, and the bill is largely perceived as a catalyst for record federal deficits rather than lasting private sector growth.

The stimulus package also left in its wake a steady decline in public opinion, so much so that President Obama neglected to name the historic legislation during his recent State of the Union. Contrast that omission with last year’s address when President Obama cited examples of government spending and said the stimulus was “the plan that has made all of this possible.”

Those who continue to hail the government’s stimulus have more than voter discontent to overcome. In Resurgent Republic’s most recent national survey, registered voters agree “we should use unspent stimulus money to reduce the deficit” by 50 to 43 percent, including 52 to 38 percent among Independents. Even 37 percent of voters who approve of President Obama’s job performance agree.

This unpopular narrative, however, was not always the case. Unlike the health care reform bill, the economic stimulus package enjoyed approval among voters during the congressional debate and after becoming law. In a January 2009 CNN poll, 57 percent of Americans believed stimulus projects would help the economy. In February, 51 percent approved of the legislation according to a CBS News poll. A NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that more adults believed the stimulus was a good idea (44 percent) than a bad idea (36 percent). And in March, nearly two-thirds of Americans had confidence in President Obama’s economic agenda, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

As the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress pursued its spending spree, the perception of the stimulus package and its overall impact on the economy dropped. During focus groups held in five states in the summer of 2009, Resurgent Republic found that voters had a difficult time identifying tangible ways in which the billions of dollars already spent improved their financial situation or the nation’s path to recovery. Any perceived benefits, such as construction projects or aid to state governments, were discussed in general terms and viewed as having little impact on private sector job creation.

Increasing disapproval of the economic measure soon followed in national surveys. Last January, 63 percent of Americans said stimulus spending was based on political calculations not economic impact, a 21-point increase in one year according to CNN. The same poll found that 74 percent believed at least half of the spending had been wasted. In February, a CBS/New York Times survey found that nearly half of Americans said the stimulus will not create jobs. Last summer, CBS News found three-fourths of adults believed the government’s stimulus had no impact on the economy (56 percent) or made the economy worse (18 percent).

The economy and job creation remain the top issues among the electorate today, but that doesn’t mean voters respond to all solutions equally. Proposals rooted in more government spending in order to achieve lasting economic growth will be met with stiff resistance from voters. In Resurgent Republic’s most recent survey, 61 percent of voters — including 69 percent of Independents — say it is a higher priority for the federal government to spend less to reduce the deficit rather than spending more to help the economy recover.

At root is the federal government’s role in a free-enterprise economy, the degree to which Washington should manage business cycles and whether voters believe such an agenda does more to promote fairness and stability or stifle innovation and long-term growth. The same governing philosophy that propelled the stimulus package two years ago is present in the Obama administration’s call for new infrastructure spending. While the debate over the proper role of the government in the economy continues, public opinion settled against the economic stimulus some time ago.

Luke Frans is the Executive Director of Resurgent Republic. He previously served as Deputy Director of Political Affairs to President George W. Bush.