American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Americans Are Angry and the Parties Are Clueless

It is now conventional wisdom that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats haven’t been able to sell the people on the merits of their economic program. Even so, the results of the most recent Pew Research Center survey are startling.

To begin, substantial majorities believe that the policies of the past two years have benefitted the wealthy (57 percent), large corporations (70 percent), and large banks and financial institutions (74 percent). By contrast, few believe that these policies have helped small businesses (23 percent), the middle class (27 percent), or the poor (31 percent).

It isn’t particularly surprising that people would reach these conclusions about bailouts for banks and AIG. But they turn thumbs down on the stimulus program as well. Only 35 percent believe that it helped keep unemployment from getting even worse, and fewer still (29 percent) think it helped state and local government avoid cuts and layoff. By contrast, 66 percent think that it increased the federal budget deficit.

Not even Democrats are solidly behind the stimulus. Fewer than half believe it helped with unemployment (49 percent) or with state and local budgets (41 percent), while 55 percent say it has increased the deficit.

Intriguingly, the program’s infrastructure component scores better, gaining approval from 56 percent of Democrats and 43 percent overall. In these skeptical times, it seems, everyone is from Missouri: they believe what they see, not what they hear—at least from politicians. Roads and bridges provide evidence of some return on tax dollars. It probably doesn’t hurt that the government has furnished each project with ARRA signs.

Taken as a whole, these costly programs have pushed the people toward fiscal restraint. As recently as February, the public was evenly divided between spending more to help the recovery and reducing the budget deficit. Today, 51 percent overall opt for deficit reduction, compared to only 40 percent for more spending; among independents, the breakdown is 53/38. No wonder additional stimulus measures—even relatively small ones—have proved such a heavy lift in a congress controlled by Democrats.

But the option of choice among Republicans—tax reductions—fares no better. Given a choice, 51 percent of the people favor deficit reduction over tax cuts, compared to 41 percent for tax cuts. Ordinary Americans, it seems, have lost patience with both Keynesians and supply-siders.

This emerging public sentiment may be setting the stage for a renewed focus on the budget deficit. If so, the political parties haven’t gotten the message. A headline in Thursday’s Hill reads “Groups line up against fiscal panel.” It’s a stirring example of bipartisanship. Americans for Tax Reform, headed by the relentless Grover Norquist, is warning Republican members not to waver in their opposition to tax increases. Meanwhile, a coalition of liberal groups is doing everything it can to thwart cuts in Social Security. No wonder one of the commission’s co-chairs, Erskine Bowles, said last week that “anybody who thinks we have a big chance to get this done is crazy.”