Vice President Joe Biden offered an unprecedented defense of the Obama administration's $800 billion-plus stimulus bill to an audience of millions during Thursday night's debate, and even found a way to use what's been a political liability to attack Republican rival Paul Ryan.
The vice president's full-throated promotion of the stimulus "“ a program he oversaw after its 2009 passage "“ was a sharp departure for a White House that for most of President Obama's first term often avoided even mentioning the package, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Ryan had just finished delivering a series of criticisms of the package, alleging it funneled billions to campaign contributors and special interests. But rather than change the subject, as the Obama administration often has done in the past, Biden went on the attack. He highlighted the fact Ryan had requested stimulus money for his congressional district in Wisconsin.
"This was such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying -- writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, "˜The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.' His words," Biden said.
Ryan, forced to acknowledge he had helped assist constituents apply for what he called "grants," shot back that the program sent money to foreign countries, but Biden continued.
"Moody's and others said that this was exactly what we needed to stop this from going off the cliff," he said. "It set the conditions to be able to grow again." Its investment in green jobs, Biden added, had a "better batting average than investment bankers have."
The stimulus was one of many topics on which the vice president offered a far more robust defense than Obama did a week earlier. That's been Biden's role in this campaign, and on Thursday night it also reflected an apparent calculation by Team Obama that it was time to abandon the cool detachment Obama showed last week.
Biden's vigorous response was a stark contrast to the stimulus non-defense the president himself offered last week. In Denver, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney berated Obama for handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to failed green energy companies. He quipped, "I had a friend who said you don't just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers."
Obama didn't even bother to respond, simply telling moderator Jim Lehrer "OK" when Lehrer said he wanted to change the subject. It was left to FactCheck.org to issue an analysis headlined "Romney's Clean Energy Whoppers."
That was in keeping with a White House that, at best, would tout investments made by the stimulus but never mentioned the economic measure itself. Biden, for all his vim and vigor at the vice presidential debate, didn't even mention it in his acceptance speech during the Democratic National Convention.
Polls show the act has been a political loser: A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey from the summer of 2011 found only 34 percent of adults thought it had or would help the economy in the future. That reflects the fact that the economy was still in the doldrums and the GOP used the package as a punching bag. Now Biden is finally punching back.