Whose Stimulus: President Obama’s or the Democratic Congress’?

The following is a response to Michael Gerson’s

After the Thrill Is Gone

column posted on The Washington Post

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and now a Washington Post columnist, has every right to opine about the contribution of the stimulus bill to what he sees as the end of President Obama’s honeymoon. Many conservative commentators join Gerson in his disdain for the bill and have trumpeted its alleged shortcomings. The accuracy of these criticisms is far from self-evident; it will be assessed by analysts in the months and years ahead as the bill’s funds are expended and evidence becomes available on their impact on the micro and macro-economy. My guess is that the Republican scorched-earth campaign against the stimulus will become less compelling and much less popular with the passing of time. We shall see.

What Gerson is not entitled to are his own facts. In his August 7, 2009 column, he perpetuates the myth that Obama’s stimulus was hijacked by liberal Democratic congressional leaders, shred of any meaningful contribution to investment, job creation and economic growth, and burdened with stale, parochial and wasteful spending programs. The reality is not even close to this caricature.

Obama’s hands were all over this bill from start to finish. The basic shape of the stimulus—rough allocations between tax cuts, fiscal relief to the states, direct assistance to individuals suffering directly from the recession, and spending for infrastructure, strategic investments in health IT, renewable energy and education, and other priorities—were set by the president-elect. The nitty-gritty legislative work identifying where and how these decisions could be implemented—it was no easy task moving these huge amounts of funds into the pipeline—was done in Congress with the direct participation of key Obama administration staff. Democratic leaders did trim Obama’s concession to House Republicans that a larger proportion of the funds be devoted to tax cuts but that was consistent with his own preferences (and had the benefit of putting more stimulus bang into the bill).

The most substantial concessions made by Obama to Congress were forced by a handful of Senate moderates—Republicans as well as Democrats—as a price for supporting cloture. Those concessions weakened the stimulus by taking out money for immediate projects like school construction and adding in a huge non-stimulus in a “fix” for the Alternative Minimum Tax (policy wisdom does not always reside in the “center.”) Nonetheless, pressure from House Democrats and skillful negotiations by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel produced a final legislative product remarkably close to what Obama sought. No wonder that the president enthusiastically championed the bill sent to him by Congress.

Recent reports reveal that the stimulus money is flowing largely on schedule, with roughly one-fourth of the funding expended in fiscal year 2009 and one-half in fiscal 2010. Now that the threat of deflation and depression has been averted but a sluggish recovery a distinct possibility, this multiyear flow of stimulus funding appears reasonable. Working with Congress, not in deference to it, President Obama garnered an early legislative victory that may well pay substantial dividends for him and the country.