Obama's Challenge: Explaining the Stimulus

President Obama has reasoned more than once this year that the stimulus worked.

He said it again today at a town-hall forum hosted by CNBC, telling the audience that "Those programs we put in place worked. Now you've got a financial system that's stable." It was the same line he gave in his weekly radio address in July, and it echoed what he said at a press conference in February, around the stimulus's one-year anniversary: that the administration had "rescued this economy from the worst of this crisis," although much work remained to be done.

Polls, however, show that Americans don't agree.

Only 37 percent think the "nearly $800 billion economic stimulus plan has worked and helped the economy," while 57 percent say it doesn't, according to a September 3 Fox survey. In late August, Gallup found retrospective approval for the stimulus at 43 percent, with disapproval at 52 percent.

The $787 billion stimulus package has become the most volatile government action of the Obama era, when it comes to public opinion--more so, even, than health care reform, which was narrowly unpopular when it passed and remains about an eight-percentage-point underdog in public opinion, not a huge downward swing. For the stimulus, opinion has flipped drastically in the 20 months since it was signed.

That's become an important conundrum for President Obama and the White House: how can he remind the public that it once supported the stimulus--that broad consensus, in early 2009, was that the government needed to do something big, even if Senate Republicans wanted a smaller bill and succeeded in trimming it and including more tax credits? How can Obama sell something that's already been sold?

In January 2009, every major polling firm showed vast support for the pending stimulus bill as it made its way through the House and Senate and changed in size, by a hundred billion dollars or so. NBC showed support/opposition at 43/27; Rasmussen, 45/34; Gallup, 53/36; Hotline/Diageo, 54/34; Ipsos/McClatchy, 55/41. (See a roundup of polling from January 27, 2009 by Mark Blumenthal for these numbers and more.)

The public wanted a stimulus, and it got a stimulus, and now it doesn't want a stimulus anymore.

The obvious explanation for this is that the economy is still terrible. The stimulus was supposed to improve things, and it didn't. And that's another major problem Obama has run up against: how to explain to the public that the stimulus helped, without making everything better than it is. That the bottom line would have been worse. It's a political debate taking place in the subjunctive.

Obama's point seems to make sense to people, but it's not a great rallying cry. The administration's metric of jobs "saved" (and "created") isn't quite conclusive enough to close the book on things. To supporters, it's plausible; to skeptics, it sounds made up.

Those who agree with Obama--who think we're better off with the stimulus than we would have been without it--don't seem to be very enthusiastic about that view. You don't see them waving signs about it in the streets.

The other side, meanwhile, can't stop talking about the stimulus. They're energized about government debt and reckless spending and have imbued the stimulus with all this anger and meaning as a single act that embodies it all--more than Obama's mortgage plan, the TARP bailout, or, probably, health care (though they're mad about that for another reason: the requirement that everyone buy insurance).

For Obama, the stimulus contest seems to be between patient reasoning and enthusiastic opposition. It can be a tough fight to win.