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Correction to This Article
This article on the political battles over President Obama's economic stimulus plan incorrectly described the route Winston Churchill took to power in 1940. Churchill became British prime minister after a fellow Conservative, Neville Chamberlain, resigned.

Democrats and Republicans Line Up to Do Battle Over Results of Stimulus Package

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By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 16, 2009

Thanks to the party-line nature of Congress's votes on the economic stimulus package, the plan to turn around the worst financial crisis facing the country in more than 50 years now carries not only enormous fiscal stakes but also political stakes that are nearly as large.

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President Obama's advisers are betting that the historic legislation he will sign tomorrow will bear fruit quickly, and they plan to do everything they can to highlight evidence of it creating the jobs he has promised. That public relations effort kicks off tomorrow as a two-day swing through the West begins.

But the Republican Party has made its own bet: that the stimulus package that Democrats rushed through Congress will have been deemed a failure by the time the 2010 elections arrive, leading voters to rebuke Obama and reward the GOP with much-needed victories.

Whichever side proves to be right, the sharp, partisan lines over the stimulus bill make it plain that both parties intend to exact a political cost over last week's votes. And their leaders are looking to history for inspiration as they consider how to maneuver in the weeks and months ahead.

For Democrats, the guide is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who even with unemployment still above 20 percent led House Democrats to pick up nine seats in the 1934 midterm elections. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) carries with him "Traitor to His Class," a new biography of how FDR built the Democratic domination that endured for three decades.

But Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House minority whip who led the fight to deny Obama every GOP vote for the plan, is studying Winston Churchill's role leading the Tories in the late 1930s, a principled minority that was eventually catapulted into power over the Labor Party. He calls the stimulus bill "a stinker."

If the economy turns around, Obama could eventually benefit much as President Bill Clinton did after pushing his economic recovery plan through Congress in 1993 with little Republican support.

Far smaller than Obama's bill, Clinton's was nonetheless controversial at the time, requiring Vice President Al Gore to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Republicans insisted then that the bill would be an albatross around Clinton's neck. And they succeeded in using the controversial tax increases to help them sweep into power in the midterm elections of 1994, when Newt Gingrich (Ga.) led a revolution of young and conservative House members.

But when the sluggish economy rocketed off several years later, Clinton claimed full credit and used Republican opposition to the legislation as fuel for his successful bid for reelection.

Now it is Obama's turn, and the political stakes -- like the mammoth bill itself -- are much larger. Obama has acknowledged that little else he does in the next four years will affect his legacy if jobs and prosperity have not returned.

"Now, look, I won't lie to you," Obama told a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., last week. "If it turns out that a few years from now people don't feel like the economy's turned around, that we're still having problems, that folks are still unemployed, that our health-care system's not more efficient, then, you know, you guys won't applaud me the next time I come down here."

The president never shied from calling the stimulus package "my bill" while stumping for it around the country. With only three Republicans supporting the measure in Friday's votes, there is almost no political cover for Obama if it doesn't work.


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