Five years ago Monday, President Barack Obama signed the signature economic proposal of his presidency, saying that the passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus package heralded the “the beginning of the end” of the Great Recession.
The president told a Denver audience that he was “keeping the American Dream alive in our time.” But for millions of Americans, he made things worse.
It is now clear that bold White House predictions about stimulus jobs “saved and created” were just a prelude to later pledges about keeping your doctors and falling premiums.
Equally maddening has been the president’s unwavering belief that an economic recovery could be engineered by Washington’s central planners. It’s as if he isn’t aware of the cynicism engendered by a stimulus bill that seemed to have been designed not so much on the basis of real need or an empirical study of what would actually help people get back on their feet, but on ideology and political connections.
From the tens of billions that have been poured into green energy to an executive order that basically excludes non-unionized workers from major construction projects, for many Americans the stimulus looked more like political payback than a jobs bill — all compliments of the taxpayer.
Meanwhile, middle class incomes have continued to shrink, making it even harder for millions in the middle class to keep up with bills. The cost of college tuition and healthcare are rising faster than inflation, and millions of Americans have received cancellation notices from their health insurers. Countless others now live with the worry that their new plan may not cover the doctors they know and trust.
No wonder so many people now feel as if no one in Washington is looking out for them.
The real tragedy here is that none of this was necessary. Republicans have always been willing to work with the president on reforms that would have broad bipartisan support, and, we believe, a far better impact on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Americans. Things like paring back regulations, tapping into vast domestic energy resources through projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and putting the nation’s finances on a more solid footing, just to name a few.
To some, it may seem like the two parties in Washington are locked in some never-ending debate about the real unemployment rate versus the official unemployment rate, about whether to raise the minimum wage or extend emergency unemployment insurance one more time, or when exactly the debt limit will be breached. In recent days, we have even debated whether fewer people holding down a job as a result of Obamacare is a good or a bad thing.
But to focus on the day-to-day debates is to miss a larger point. It’s to forget that the record expansion of all these government programs is proof that more Americans are in need of help today than they were in 2009; that the president’s policies have failed the very people they were intended to help. If the stimulus had been the great success its supporters predicted, we would not be having these debates.
It’s that simple.
Far from establishing the firm foundation and middle-class renewal that the president promised, nearly seven out of 10 Americans now think the country is worse off than it was when the stimulus was signed. The labor participation rate is at its lowest level since the Carter era, and confidence in government has been dropping like a stone.
If the goal was to make things better, a clear majority of Americans would say it didn’t.
An even sharper verdict comes from the nine out of 10 Americans who say the president should make a “top priority” of creating jobs this year. Such overwhelming majorities wouldn’t feel that way if the stimulus had led to the kind of “long-term growth and prosperity” that the president initially envisioned.
Five years later, the stimulus is no success to celebrate. It is a tragedy to lament.
(Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the Republican Leader of the Senate.)
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