Americans Think Stimulus Didn't Work, Want More

Someone wise once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, Americans must be pretty crazy. According to a new poll from Pew, they overwhelmingly believe that the fiscal stimulus spending didn't work. Yet, it remains the most popular method for government intervention in the economy going forward to create more jobs.

Here's the first chart Pew presents, showing which types of action its respondents would prefer the government use to improve the job situation:

pew poll cht1 2010-05.gif

Spending tops the list. A full 80% think it would help at least a little. Poll-takers' last choice was personal income tax cuts, with 67% of the vote. Fascinatingly more people (73%) think budget cuts would help than that. If anyone can identify a time when budget cuts in a vacuum (which would almost certainly include government job layoffs) during a weak recovery created jobs, please point it out, because you might win a Nobel Prize for economics.

But this poll gets even stranger when you consider the next chart. This one provides Americans' opinions on whether the stimulus helped:

pew poll cht2 2010-05.gif

So only 33% think that the spending helped, yet 80% want more of it? When I first read this, I thought maybe those polled needed an economics class, but now I think some basic logic would be more helpful. If you don't think something works, you shouldn't want to do more of it to solve the problem.

Another interesting aspect about this chart is the dominant view that the bank bailout didn't work. Surprisingly, 54% of respondents think it didn't help. It's hard to imagine what world they live in, if they believe that the banks aren't a lot healthier now than they were in the fall of 2008. If anything has helped to prevent a much more severe crisis, it was the bank bailout paired with the Fed's monetary actions. That's not to say that the need to bail out the financial industry isn't regrettable; it is. But clearly these actions did what they were meant to do: they stabilized financial markets.

You might think that Republicans lead the charge in bringing down public opinion on additional spending. They do, but a minority of Democrats -- and an even smaller minority of Independents -- thinks that more spending would do a lot to improve the job outlook:

pew poll cht3 2010-05.gif

As you can see, there are more Republicans that would prefer more spending (29%) than there are Democrats who would prefer cutting taxes (20-22%).

And here's the breakdown for how each party thinks the stimulus helped (towards the bottom):

pew poll cht4 2010-05.gif

As you can see, a significant 59% of Independents believe that the stimulus didn't help. Even 40% of Democrats were negative about its effect. As you might guess, Republicans are largely skeptical about the government spending, as a full 80% think it didn't do the trick.

This puts a strange spin on Congress's midterm elections in November. Incumbents will clearly be viewed in a pretty negative light: Americans aren't convinced that the federal government did enough to improve the economy. Yet, what change should their opponents promise? Americans want more of the same, but done differently. Perhaps they believe new personnel in Congress can spend more effectively?

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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