At the White House this week, the main narrative in the press room was this: Has President Barack Obama lost the message war over the $862 billion stimulus? Noting the one-year anniversary of the enactment of that legislation, reporters again and again asked press secretary Robert Gibbs some version of this question. What could the guy say? Especially when the answer is yes. He's not going to concede the White House got its clock cleaned by the feckless congressional Republicans on this front -- even though public opinion polls apparently show that there's only person in the entire United States of America who believes the Recovery Act has created jobs. So Gibbs repeatedly said that it's understandable that at a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment most Americans are skeptical that Obama's stimulus package did much good -- no matter that economists widely credit it for spurring part of the recent economic growth and that it's darn obvious that the package did fund private sector projects that spawned jobs and that it prevented teachers, firefighters, cops, and others from being canned.
Still, Gibbs couldn't escape the journos who were fixated on this political
story and who wanted to squeeze an admission of defeat out of the White House.
There's nothing wrong with a who's-up/who's down story. After all, a White House is responsible for implementing and
promoting its policies. But there was a bigger story at hand: not who won the battle of the stimulus, but who was right?
For days, Republicans derided the stimulus, which they had voted against, as a flop that has achieved nothing. Independent sources, though, say that's not so. IHS Global Insight and Moody's Economy.com have estimated the stimulus has added 1.6 to 1.8 million jobs to the economy. And the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office put this number at 2.4 million. And throughout the week, the Democratic Party sent out e-mails to reporters documenting instances when leading congressional Republicans who denounced the stimulus have taken credit for stimulus-funded projects in their districts or states. This list of GOP hypocrites includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Kit Bond, and nine other senators. (The Center for American Progress, a liberal group, issued a report
noting that 111 House Republicans who voted against the Recovery Act have claimed credit for projects it has financed.)
Beyond this rank hypocrisy -- which is par for the course in Washington -- the issue is whether the Republican Party is knowingly pushing a lie. There's no doubt that the party's leading lights have spoken falsely about the stimulus. But have they been deliberately lying? Recently, newly elected Sen. Scott Brown declared that the stimulus bill "didn't create one new job." Politifact.com, an independent fact-checking outfit, branded that remark a "pants on fire"
And look at a statement House Minority Leader Eric Cantor zapped out this week. It proclaimed, "1 Year, $862 Billion, 4 Million Jobs Lost." Cantor maintained that since the stimulus was enacted, there has been "no job creation." Poltifact.com could award him its lowest honor, as well. But Cantor went beyond that false statement. He fiddled with the numbers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in the year prior to passage of the Recovery Act, the nation lost 5.9 million jobs. In the year, since then, the rate of job loss has fallen dramatically, with the economy shedding about 2 million jobs. That's a lot of jobs, but it's half the number that Cantor claimed, and one-third the number of jobs lost prior to the stimulus. If you click to this chart
of job losses over the past year, you'll see that job loss peaked shortly before the stimulus passed and steadily decreased in the months afterward, almost reaching zero in December.
Critics can challenge various aspects of the stimulus bill; they can argue that perhaps there are better ways to use this money to boost the economy. But Cantor's attempt to connect the stimulus bill to the loss of 4 million jobs is utterly disingenuous. By the way, last year, Cantor tried to win funding
from the stimulus program for a high-speed rail project in Virginia, noting that this would lead to "economic development and job growth."
Obama has indeed lost the message war, and he and his crew can be slammed for that. But a more serious matter is how Republican officials are poisoning the national discourse with demonstrably false information -- which undermines policymaking and, thus, the potential for economic recovery. The real narrative is not how Obama has bumbled the politics, but how the Republicans are killing the truth.
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