After Stimulus Battle, Liberals Press Obama
President Urged to Compromise Less on the Rest of Agenda

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

As President Obama prepares to sign a $787 billion economic stimulus package today amid gales of Republican criticism of its cost, he is also facing quieter misgivings from liberal Democrats who say the bill does not go far enough -- and who are already looking ahead to future legislation that they hope will do more.

Liberal Democrats recognize the package's scale and accomplishment, and they have defended it against Republican attacks. But they also wonder whether Obama could have used the opportunity of a large congressional majority and a moment of economic emergency to pass a bigger package, with a better chance of boosting the economy and with more of his priorities intact.

As Obama moves on to issues such as health care and energy, liberals are debating how to ensure that the stimulus outcome does not define the outer boundaries of his agenda, so that future legislation is not limited, as the stimulus was, by the demands of centrist senators such as Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Some say Obama must aim higher next time, so that compromises produce a more satisfactory result. Some say he needs to take greater control of drafting legislation, instead of leaving it to Democratic congressional leaders, and needs to adopt a harder line with Republican legislators. And some say liberals and pro-Democratic interest groups such as labor unions must do a better job of pressuring moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to back the president.

"We can't suddenly say, 'Change has come,' and just talk to one another and add more demands. We have to be out there explaining in the most elementary ways why something like universal health care is good for America," said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University political scientist, addressing a conference of left-leaning groups in Washington last week.

She added: "It isn't going to happen in one week, and it isn't going to happen with one bill, with Olympia Snowe telling us what to do. It's going to be a long slog."

Plenty of Obama supporters are celebrating the package. They note that while it includes less social spending than what passed in the House, it represents billions of dollars in spending for Democratic priorities such as health, education and renewable energy.

"President Obama has been in office, what, 3 1/2 weeks? And to be able to pass a stimulus package of this size, I don't think anybody would have thought that possible six weeks ago," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The White House touts the package, too, noting that it is larger than any element of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. It is "the most major, sweeping, comprehensive legislation as relates to economic activity ever," Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said last week.

But as many liberals see it, the package is also notable for its omissions. They saw the bill as the launching of a new era of public investment, a sequel to the transformational presidencies of Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Obama swept into office with popular support, a sizable congressional advantage, and even conservative economists demanding government action. Obama supporters had envisioned big initiatives to rebuild schools, overhaul aging infrastructure and expand the safety net.

The bill includes just under $50 billion for roads, bridges, transit and rail, less than many mayors and governors had hoped -- though the White House did manage to slip in $8 billion for high-speed rail. It includes $70 billion for a tax fix that will help upper-middle-class earners and have little stimulative effect -- added at the request of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who voted against the bill anyway. The final deal dropped a $16 billion school-construction fund in the House version, $11 billion to cover the unemployed in Medicaid, and billions in aid to states.

And as big as it is, the final bill is smaller than what initially passed in the House and Senate, and it falls well short of filling the $2 trillion gap in demand that many economists foresee. With a third of the bill's cost devoted to tax cuts, the spending is $507 billion.

"The economic stimulus is like CPR for a patient with heart disease, and it will resuscitate the patient if we're lucky," said Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "But it won't provide the cure. What we need is a new New Deal."

Underlying the postmortem debate is whether it was unrealistic to expect the bill to serve as both a short-term stimulus and a long-term economic transformation, as Obama himself pitched it. As he took office, there was an assumption that the need for a big stimulus would allow Obama to spend on his priorities.

But it became clear that much of the package would be devoted to tax cuts and aid to states and laid-off workers, and that some longer-term spending would be hard to justify as stimulus. Obama acknowledged recently that the stimulus had not been the shining opportunity some had predicted. "This notion that somehow I came in here just ginned up to spend $800 billion, that wasn't -- that wasn't how I envisioned my presidency beginning," he said.

Some Democrats hope that it will prove easier to build public support for future legislation that will have a clearer focus than a stimulus package that was, by definition, a rushed grab bag. Hacker predicted that more Republicans could be persuaded to support Obama's health-care proposal, given that some Republican senators are already on the record supporting a different universal health-care plan. To lay the groundwork, he said, the president needs to include new health-care funding in his first budget, and grass-roots supporters need to pressure Republicans.

"You have to keep the movement alive," he said. "You have to keep the pressure on. Whether it's [Arlen] Specter or Snowe or Collins, they have to feel that their constituents are hurting."

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) said he was disappointed in the level of infrastructure funding in the package but hoped that a case for more investment could be made later. "The support for doing big things has to be built up over a long time," he said.

Still, some liberal Democrats worry that it might be difficult to pass additional ambitious legislation in the next year or two if the public perceives the stimulus package as having been Obama's chance to spend heavily -- even if much of the spending did not actually go toward his long-term agenda. They say the administration could have gotten more of what it wanted in this bill.

Robert Reich, who was President Bill Clinton's labor secretary, said the White House erred in letting congressional leaders write the bill, which resulted in the inclusion of several controversial elements that, while small, offered easy targets for Republicans.

"Had the administration been a little more vigilant, it might have been able to screen out some of the porklike bits that Republicans blew out of proportion to cast doubt on the bill," Reich said. "It's a delicate balance, but Obama probably overdid inclusiveness and conceded too much control."

Obama also erred, Reich said, in expecting more Republicans to support the bill and in granting from the outset some of the GOP's wishes for business tax cuts. "The strategic question that must be dominant in the White House now is: How many Republicans are really needed?" he said. "The public is still overwhelmingly with the president. White House advisers are probably telling him he doesn't need to court Republican support as ardently in the future, and shouldn't expect it. And he should never again offer them what they want before getting firm commitments from them."

Emanuel defended the White House approach. The plan all along, he said, was to lay out "broad strokes," let Congress write the bill and then, when it reached conference committee, "come in with a specific thing that would make this the president's plan." The White House included tax cuts from the outset because "we thought that, by giving some skin in the game first, it would get people off the positions they were trying to hold."

If the White House erred, Emanuel said, it was in emphasizing Obama's hope for bipartisanship, which allowed Republicans to crow when House GOP members all voted against it. "There was a time where . . . for about four days I don't think we were sharp about the benefits of this . . . where rather than jobs being the message, [we had] bipartisanship being the message," he said.

Emanuel said Obama's outreach will continue, but he hinted at tougher negotiations in the future. Obama, he said, "has an open hand, but he has a very firm handshake."

He acknowledged that the package was smaller than what Obama envisioned, particularly if one does not count the $70 billion tax fix -- which Emanuel called "the price for getting the deal done." But he said the final deal was "90 percent" of what Obama wanted.

"We clearly thought that economic activity needed more, but it was more important to get it done than argue about just that," he said. "At the end, it became a choice between passage or not."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company