Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stimulation Day

Maybe Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was really bonding with the president on Super Bowl Day, when some of his constituents — the Pittsburgh Steelers — won the game.

Maybe Barack got Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s martini just right. Who knows?

What’s not up for debate, not anymore, is the status of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a 1,071-page behemoth shorthanded as the stimulus bill, a piece of legislation that went from a proposal to a law today, as the first and only slightly mitigated triumph of the administration of President Barack Obama.

With the signing of the $787 billion stimulus package, President Obama fulfills a longtime campaign pledge and taken the first steps, baby though they might be, toward righting the badly listing ship of the American economy.

Signing the bill today at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, the president (as usual) didn’t sugarcoat the nation’s dire situation, or try to paint the stim bill — the largest spending legislation in American history — as the magic bullet. “I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems. Nor does it constitute all of what we’re going to have to do to turn our economy around. But today does mark the beginning of the end.”

If the New York Times’ breakdown of where the money goes is accurate, the stimulus will attempt to spread relief wide across a number of areas, if not that deep: $282 billion in tax cuts (satisfying the Republicans), $100 billion in public works projects, $87.1 billion in state Medicaid assistance, $69.2 billion for education and job training, $50 billion for transportation projects, $35.8 billion in enhanced unemployment benefits, $25.1 billion in COBRA health care coverage for the unemployed, $21 billion in food assistance, and $17.2 billion for upgrades in health information technology.

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The Republican right held fast, almost uniformly resisting approval of the bill, with only relative moderates Specter, Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine voting to support the package, breaking ranks with the Republican leadership. The GOP party line was more or less consistent mantra: a bill of this size should more properly go for tax cuts for businesses.

If you wanted any sense of bipartisanship, you had to look beyond the Republican leaders and seek out some Republican governors; Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California have signed on to the thrust of the stimulus bill.

The GOP brain trust would have none of it. On Friday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that “the stimulus bill that was supposed to be timely, targeted and temporary is none of the above. And this means Congress is about to approve a stimulus that's unlikely to have much stimulative effect."

It all seems like, among other things, an ironically sad estimation of the worth of the American dollar in its own right. The idea that $787 billion injected into various sectors of the state and consumer economies wouldn’t have a beneficial impact on them is a rhetorical devaluation of the currency: If three quarters of a trillion dollars can’t defibrillate an ailing economy, what the hell can?

But just as important as the effect of the literal application of the stimulus law, whatever that effect might be, is the psychological effect — not just market psychology, but Main Street’s mindset as well. For the first time in too long, people see something substantive happening about the economy, a corrective effort on the same scale as that which needs correcting.

People see someone making the effort to change things. How it all plays out is still to be seen, but President Obama and his advisers will reap the benefits of the immediate public perception as men and women of action, urgent, principled and absolutely determined to fix the disaster they inherited from the loyal opposition.

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The GOP, still very much in wilderness mode, has strategized itself into another dilemma of its identification with the public. Throughout the long process of the stim bill’s passage through Congress, and solidly along party lines, the GOP leadership and wannabes have so solidly positioned itself against the bill’s passage that their opposition has looked like opposition for its own sake — not objections based on economic principle so much as objections animated by plain old political obstinance.

The Republicans may be boxed in now by a perception of being the worst kind of opportunistic obstructionist: opposing the stimulus bill (and the broad economic recovery that would at least have a chance of beginning, and without which things would certainly get worse) out of a nakedly partisan fear that it will succeed.

Far-fetched? Remember the fighting words of Republican voice box and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh (“I hope he fails!”). With the bill’s signing into law, the Republicans are faced not only with a defeat on the legislative merits, but also a loss in the court of public opinion.

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Maybe the most important thing about the stimulus package signed into is what hasn’t been said yet about how much more will be necessary to do what the stimulus package intends. Remember what the man said?: “Nor does it constitute all of what we’re going to have to do to turn our economy around.” What took place in Denver today might well be considered Stimulus I, the first round of timed-release economic rescue. Hip & knee replacement? Open heart surgery? Chemotherapy? Insert your medical metaphor here.

Interviewed Monday by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman expressed what he thinks is needed: More of the same.

“Just about all of the spending looks like good stimulus,” Krugman said. “The aid to state governments is really important, the infrastructure spending is really good, the aid to education, the aid to health care and unemployment benefits — those things are going to mitigate the pain of this thing. They’re going to help people who are in trouble …”

“Given the sausage-making in politics, it’s not a bad bill at all. But the actual meat in the sausage is not enough to feed us in this famine.”

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So … to the number of big jobs Barack Obama has been and will be asked to do, you can add one more: Butcher. The president has made a good beginning, and given the economic farrago that greeted him on day one of his presidency, a very good beginning, achieved, no less on day 28. The phrase "hit the ground running" doesn't apply if you don't hit the ground at all.

We’ll overlook the little Churchillian reference in his speech (“today does mark the beginning of the end”); we know he’s a better orator than that. We’re looking forward to the appearance of his other gifts — as an administrator, a wonk, a visionary, a listener and a leader — as he steers us to our finest hour.

At least one finer than now.

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