"The Stimulus Shows What Obama Is All About."
Yes. This kind of statement is usually intended as an insult; critics on the right and the left describe the Recovery Act as the essence of Obama-ism. It is, but not in the way they mean.
To Republicans, the "failed" stimulus is a classic Obama exercise in big-government liberalism, fiscal irresponsibility, and incompetence. But those are all bum raps. The Recovery Act included $300 billion in tax cuts, just as Republicans had requested; ARPA-E was its only new government agency, and most of its spending went to priorities (from highways to electric vehicles to unemployment insurance) that had always been bipartisan until they were associated with Obama. The stimulus did increase the deficit -- that's the whole point of Keynesian stimulus -- but its impact on the long-term debt was negligible compared with the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and collapsing revenues during the Great Recession. And the Recovery Act really was an exercise in good government. Not only was it scandal-free and earmark-free, on time and under budget, but it also engineered a quiet bureaucratic revolution, harnessing the power of competition to award tax dollars to the worthiest applicants instead of just spreading cash around the country. The stimulus created dozens of competitive, results-oriented races to the top for everything from lead-paint removal to the smart grid to innovative transportation projects.
Yet somehow, to many liberals, the stimulus exposed the president as a spineless sellout, more interested in cutting deals than chasing dreams, happy to throw his base under the bus, and desperate to compromise with uncompromising Republicans. But progressive purity wouldn't have gotten 60 votes in the Senate. And Obama isn't a progressive purist. In reality, the Recovery Act provided early evidence that Obama is pretty much what he said he was: a left-of-center technocrat who is above all a pragmatist, comfortable with compromise, solicitous of experts, disinclined to sacrifice the good in pursuit of the ideal but determined to achieve big things. It reflected his belief in government as a driver of change, but also his desire for better rather than bigger government. And it was the first evidence that despite all his flowery talk during the campaign, he understood that bills that don't pass Congress don't produce change.
Ultimately, the stimulus was the purest distillation of what Obama meant by Change We Can Believe In. It was about saving the economy from a calamity, but also changing the economy to prepare America to compete in the 21st century. On the trail, Obama often talked about cleaner energy, better schools, health reform, and fairer taxation not only as moral imperatives, but as economic prerequisites for American renewal and leadership. He warned that the United States couldn't afford to let the green industries of the future drift abroad; or fail to prepare children for the information age; or lose control of skyrocketing health-care costs that were bankrupting families, companies, and the country. And the Recovery Act took steps -- in some cases, giant steps -- in all those directions. Nearly four years later, the stimulus has become a punch line, a talking point in a political battle over big government, but it's moving America toward that hopey-changey policy vision he laid out during his last campaign.
In the end, the stimulus didn't live up to the hype, but it made things better. That's the whole point of change.
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