By Sam Youngman - 06/08/09 08:37 PM EDT
President Obama announced ramped-up stimulus spending Monday in the wake of 9.4 percent unemployment, as a new opinion poll showed lower confidence in his handling of the economy.
Obama and members of his team defended the $787 billion stimulus, arguing unemployment figures would be worse without it. They said the next phase of the recovery act — the second 100 days since it was signed into law — will accelerate job growth.
“Obviously, spending $787 billion over a two-year period of time takes some groundwork to be laid in order to begin to move that money from individual departments,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
At a Cabinet meeting with the president, Vice President Biden announced 10 major new projects that the White House said would save or create 600,000 jobs over the summer.
Still, since an acceleration had already been planned, some Republicans and Democrats saw Monday’s announcement as part of an effort by the administration to make sure the economy, viewed more and more as being owned by Obama and not his predecessor, does not become a political liability.
The White House is “trying to create a firewall” to prevent unemployment figures from “leeching into their general economic support,” Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said.
Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the White House “is scrambling for a political solution” given the recent polling data.
Gibbs disputed the idea that any of Monday’s efforts was a response to new polling. “We’re focused on the implementation of the recovery plan,” Gibbs said. “We’re not focused on the latest poll.”
A new Gallup poll released Monday showed 42 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, compared to only 30 percent in February. Overall, Obama’s numbers remain high, with 61 percent giving him a good job approval rating.
Still, the latest poll showed 51 percent now disapprove of how Obama is handling federal spending, while 48 percent disapprove of how he is handling the deficit.
In his own comments on Monday, Obama emphasized that the recession had its seeds in the Bush administration’s tenure. The 345,000 jobs lost in May served as “a reminder that we’re still in the middle of a very deep recession that was years in the making, and it’s going to take a considerable amount of time for us to pull out of,” he said.
“That was far less than was expected, but it’s still too many,” Obama said. He added: “The key is for us to build on the modest progress that has been made in the months to come.”
Republicans said 1.5 million jobs have been lost since Obama signed the stimulus package into law, and criticized the administration for suggesting unemployment figures would be lower.
“When they passed this spending plan, Democrats said it would immediately create jobs, yet nearly four months later unemployment has continued to climb and none of their rosy predictions have come true,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “These policies are harming middle-class families when they can least afford it, and adding to the massive debt we’re passing on to future generations.”
Some GOP consultants also fired back at the Obama administration for continuing to argue it is still cleaning up President George W. Bush’s economic mess.
“It’s beyond time for President Obama to take responsibility for the decisions he has made and their negative effect on the economy, as we now have the highest unemployment rate in 25 years,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said.
“He’s consistently falling back on blaming Bush when the domestic economy is now in his sole possession,” said Mackowiak. “At some point, the ‘blame Bush first, last and always’ mantra will either fall on deaf ears or convey to voters that he isn’t in charge and cannot deliver meaningful change.”
Biden’s office said that of the $787 billion, the administration has now obligated more than $135 billion to projects and programs. Tax relief accounts for $288 billion of the plan.
The administration was unable to say how much money would be spent this year, but one official said that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) laid out a goal of paying out 70 percent of the remaining $499 billion by the fall of 2010.
John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic Policy and Research, noted that Obama is still benefiting from public good will five months after taking office.
Schmitt, who supports enactment of another stimulus bill, said the key for the administration is to press on with its job-creation work, particularly since without additional action, unemployment is likely to continue to rise. He said the administration should worry less about criticism of budget deficits.
“I think the key thing is, as long as there’s a perception that the administration is actively and effectively trying to address unemployment concerns, budget concerns are more of a Washington, D.C. concern,” Schmitt said.