President Barack Obama has lifted the ban on stimulus. Or at least the word.
In a newspaper interview this week that was originally off the record, Obama referred to his 2009 “stimulus” program three times, using a word that he hadn’t uttered in public in almost a year, according to a review of White House transcripts of his remarks and interviews.
Through his first two years in office, Obama traveled the country promoting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He visited factories, solar farms, town hall meetings and union conventions to tout the benefits of $832 billion in stimulus spending that his advisers promised would keep the unemployment rate below 8 percent. He sent Vice President Joe Biden on a “Summer of Recovery” tour in 2010 to highlight its progress.
Then, early in 2011, with unemployment hovering above 9 percent, Obama’s aides made a calculated decision to stop expending the president’s political capital to defend the program, either by its name or the generic term stimulus, said Bill Daley, Obama’s chief of staff at the time.
“It was pretty obvious that people didn’t see a difference in the economy yet,” Daley said. “You could see the investments, but you couldn’t see the returns on those investments.”
“After the 2010 congressional election, the public mood was very much for fiscal responsibility,” Daley said. “The public, and the Republican Congress, was just into cut, cut, cut.”
Obama’s public hiatus from stimulus talk ended when the White House, under pressure, allowed the Des Moines Register to release an editorial board interview with the president this week that was conducted under the rules that it wouldn’t be published. Obama was seeking the endorsement of the newspaper, which is the largest in Iowa.
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Defending his inaugural moves as president, Obama said, “we were able to pass emergency action with the stimulus,” relying on a word that he last said in a “60 Minutes” interview on Dec. 11, 2011. It was one of four mentions last year. In 2010, he used the term nine times, compared with 19 times in his first year in office.
One of the president’s few defenses of the stimulus last year came at a Reno, Nevada, town hall meeting in April, in response to a question.
“You hear people say, oh, the stimulus didn’t work, the stimulus didn’t work, the recovery didn’t work,” Obama said. “Well, you know what, we had a terrible recession.”
After signing the program into law on Feb. 17, 2009, at a Denver ceremony that included a rooftop tour of solar panels, Obama promoted the Recovery Act at 71 events for the next 10 1/2 months, according to a review of his public speeches. Throughout the year, he touted the stimulus at the White House and on the road, visiting companies that received grants and addressing firefighters and teachers whose jobs were saved by stimulus dollars.
The next year, Obama kept at it, plugging the program at 59 appearances, including a visit to Fremont, California-based Solyndra, a solar panel company that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee and later filed for bankruptcy.
After a midterm election that Obama described as a “shellacking,” the stimulus-themed events mostly stopped, as Obama sought to get on the right side of public opinion.
In 2011, he used the name Recovery Act at 15 events. This year, he has given it less attention, mentioning it at 12 events, with half of them fundraisers where Obama was in the company of the Democratic Party faithful.
Despite the president’s initial advocacy, public opinion soured on the stimulus. In September 2009, 47 percent of those surveyed said the stimulus was helping the economy or keeping it from getting worse, according to a Bloomberg National Poll. Forty-nine percent said it was having no effect or was hurting the economy.
A year-and-a-half later, 60 percent said it was having no impact or harming the economy. The number of respondents who said it was helping the economy or preventing a further slide had dropped to 37 percent, according to a March 2010 Bloomberg National Poll.
When Obama unveiled the $447 billion American Jobs Act in September 2011, he avoided describing the program as a stimulus.
“It’s a good thing that he stopped using the term,” said George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. When people think stimulus, “it’s like sticking a needle in you, you go ouch.”
“The ordinary meaning actually contradicts the actual real economics,” he said. “Whoever used that word and brought it into the economic lexicon had a dead ear.”
Part of Obama’s declining advocacy for the stimulus reflects that the spending has gone down.
“It’s far more natural to talk about it the year that passes,” said Austan Goolsbee, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. “After a couple of years, then the stimulus is getting smaller and smaller.”
“Arguing about which part of the thing that happened 3½ years ago were more or less effective, it just doesn’t strike me as that compelling of a campaign issue for either side,” he said.
Former President Bill Clinton doesn’t avoid either the term or a discussion of the Recovery Act and job creation.
“In the last 3 1/2 years, the economy has produced 4.3 million -- 27 months really -- 4.3 million private sector -- for the last three-and-a-half years,” Clinton said June 4 in New York, with Obama at his side. “And he did it with the so-called stimulus bill.”
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