A photo of President Barack Obama hangs on the wall in CoraFaye’s Cafe, a short walk from the Denver museum where Obama signed into law the most sweeping U.S. economic package in decades in an attempt to put people back to work and end the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
But the folks tucking into fried chicken and cornbread at CoraFaye’s roll their eyes when asked whether the 2009 stimulus made a difference.
“Are you kidding?” said Donn Headley Sr., a 61-year-old whose heating and air conditioning company closed last year because of slow business.
Republicans nationwide are attacking Democrats with a “failed stimulus” campaign drumbeat. In ads, debates and campaign mailers, they deride the $814 billion program as having reinforced out-of-control spending and doing little to help.
In reality, the stimulus program has done more than Republicans often claim – and less than Democrats may want to admit in the face of a sluggish economy and high unemployment. Moreover, the spending continues into next year, meaning the impact of the program cannot be fully measured.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month that 1.4 million to 3.3 million people are employed because of the program, a blow to Republican claims that the stimulus failed to increase employment.
The stimulus program has kept many state and local governments fiscally viable, and the money has been a boon to the construction industry, financing thousands of road and bridge projects. In other areas – tax cuts, Medicaid health benefits, unemployment checks, food stamps – the stimulus has provided some relief to millions suffering in a tough economy.
Still, voters are skeptical of the price tag. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 68 percent considered the stimulus money “wasted,” with only 29 percent describing it as mostly well spent.
That perception has turned the stimulus into an effective political stick for Republicans to wield against Democrats:
-In Colorado, rookie Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and three House Democrats are struggling to fend off challengers who routinely point out their votes for the stimulus. Out-of-state interest groups allied with the GOP air ads calling it a failure and a spending spree.
-Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative Georgia Democrat who has resisted vigorous challenges from Republicans before, may be undone this year by a challenger whose ads conclude: “Times are hard. Jim Marshall made them worse.”
-In southeast Michigan, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters ousted a Republican incumbent two years ago. This election, Republican challenger Rocky Raczkowski campaigns on the stimulus daily with a blunt, if unscientific, assessment: “It ended up being super-duper government waste.”
-In Texas, 20-year incumbent Rep. Chet Edwards told The Dallas Morning News this month his vote for the stimulus might cost him re-election.
-In Maryland, first-term Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil voted against his party on health care and supports a balanced budget amendment. No matter. His Republican opponent, Andy Harris, depicts Kratovil as a profligate spender for supporting a final version of the stimulus law.
Obama told voters at a town hall meeting Sunday in Elyria, Ohio, that the stimulus was intended not to increase the size of government, as Republicans allege, but to help put folks back to work.
“I mean, I understand how people have become mistrustful of government,” Obama said. “But it can’t be this constant ideological argument. People need help. We need to provide them a helping hand.”
Beleaguered Democrats have invited news cameras to shiny new projects aided with stimulus money.
Rep. Betsy Markey of Colorado brought Vice President Joe Biden to an electronics company in her district in April to talk up the company’s new motor plant, funded with $45 million in stimulus money. That’s a slice of more than $1.7 billion in stimulus money pumped into Colorado to prevent teacher layoffs, keep the state budget afloat and increase Social Security and unemployment payments, among other things.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington credited the stimulus in September as she touted $30 million in federal grant money to help unclog a Seattle interchange.
Edwards, the Texas Democrat who said he may lose because of his stimulus vote, trumpeted the program in January when he announced a police department in his district was receiving $176,675 to hire a new officer.
Still, the stimulus has proved a powerful weapon in the GOP arsenal because its benefits are unclear for many voters, said political scientist Stephen Voss at the University of Kentucky.
“There is a general sense that Democrats got to Washington and busted open the piggy bank, squandered everything, and we haven’t seen much improvement as a result,” Voss said.
At CoraFaye’s in Denver, owner Priscilla Smith said she’s an Obama fan but doesn’t think the stimulus helped business. People are eating out less, and except for a new beauty parlor next door, there’s not a lot of additional shops popping up on her busy street.
“The jury’s still out on the stimulus for me, I guess,” Smith said. “I don’t see it directly – not yet, anyway.”
More worrisome for Democrats are voters like Kendra Jassmann, a 44-year-old mother of two in the Denver suburb of Aurora, who received stimulus money to help with rent after she was injured and had to quit work. A few months after a local charity started helping with her rent, the charity told her its stimulus money had run out and she was on her own.
Jassmann says she may be homeless by Christmas.
“I thought the stimulus was going to help,” Jassmann said as she packed boxes. “I see the banks, the rich people, getting help, but I don’t see us getting it. It’s unbelievable.”
Democrats hear similar stories all over.
In a suburban Denver House district once considered safe for Democrats, Rep. Ed Perlmutter is on the defensive in part because of his vote for the stimulus. Asked why he voted for it, he pointed to a map of his district.
“We were losing 786,000 jobs a month, OK? See that district? Seven hundred eighty-six thousand is more than all the people in that district. A month. We were in an economic free-fall to places none of us could imagine,” Perlmutter said.
It’s not an uplifting sell. But that’s the corner Democrats find themselves in.
“I think the presumption two years ago was that the economy would be in a better place,” said University of Colorado political scientist Scott Adler. “But a lot of voters have not really experienced a significant change n their day-to-day experiences. So the stimulus, the argument that it prevented it from being worse, that’s hard to sell to voters still struggling with their jobs and cuts to their kids’ schools.
“If you’re a Democrat,” Adler concluded, “there’s only so much you can say.”