Why the Stimulus Made America Better Off Four Years Later

The U.S. economy would be even worse without President Obama’s Recovery Act.

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President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on February 17, 2009, with the hopes of jump-starting a depressed U.S. economy and initiating his agenda for healthcare, energy, and education. Larger in constant dollars than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, Obama's stimulus is one of the most misunderstood pieces of legislation in U.S. history, says Time journalist Michael Grunwald. The author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era recently spoke to U.S. News about why Republicans were so successful in their campaign against the bill, and why Americans don't understand how truly transformative it was. Excerpts:

Why did Obama pursue the Recovery Act?

The economy had fallen off a cliff, and in the past, this idea that when the private sector shuts down, the public sector needs to step up was totally uncontroversial. Bush had passed a stimulus bill with overwhelming bipartisan support when the economy started to go soft in 2008. All the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates had their own stimulus plans in 2008. Mitt Romney's was actually the largest. And House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, voted in 2009 for a $715 billion alternative to the stimulus that was quite similar to President Obama's $787 billion stimulus. It was never really clear how the Republican plan could be good public policy and how Obama's pretty similar policy was radical socialism.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

While the Recovery Act was partly about recovery, it was also really the purest distillation of what Obama meant when he talked about change we can believe in, in terms of transforming energy, starting to reduce healthcare costs, reforming education with things like Race to the Top, and then the largest infrastructure investments, the largest middle-class tax cuts since Reagan, the largest research investments ever. That's the new New Deal.

Why does the stimulus have such a bad rap?

First, you have to say that the Republicans did a brilliant job of completely distorting the substance of the bill. They turned this into an $800 billion boondoggle that was full of levitating trains to Disneyland and mob museums and snow-making machines in Duluth and all kinds of nonsense that wasn't actually in the bill. They've been very disciplined and unified in portraying this as just a big mess. This thing was just hard to sell at a time when the financial earthquake had hit but the economic tsunami hadn't reached the shore. It wasn't like when FDR took office after three years of depression, so everybody knew it was Hoover's depression. But Obama took office during a freefall, and January 2009 was the worst month for job losses. And then he passed the stimulus, and then the next quarter was the biggest jobs improvement in 30 years, but it improved from absolutely hideous to just bad, and it's hard to sell a jobs bill when the job situation is bad.

[See a slide show of Mort Zuckerman's 5 Ways to Create More Jobs.]

What was the value of programs that weren't necessarily shovel-ready?

After a financial meltdown, the recoveries are always going to be long and slow. That's one reason the money was spread out over several years. Right up front they wrote big checks to states to help governors balance their budgets without doing mass layoffs of public employees and mass cutbacks of Medicaid spending on the poor. Tax cuts went out quickly to get money into people's pockets. So all that stuff was obviously shovel-ready; you just shovel the money out the door. Then you had some stuff that really wasn't supposed to be all that shovel-ready at all, like building the world's largest wind farm or bringing our pen-and-paper healthcare system into the digital age, or building high-speed rail lines. It was always understood that those were going to take longer. The idea was that even if it wasn't shovel-ready, it was shovel-worthy.

How are Republicans using the stimulus against President Obama?