By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
DENVER, Feb. 17 -- Warning that its passage into law "does not mark the end of our economic troubles," President Obama on Tuesday signed the $787 billion stimulus package, a measure he called the most sweeping financial legislation enacted in the nation's history.
Obama used the occasion to step away from Washington, choosing not to sign the landmark bill in a White House ceremony surrounded by proud congressional supporters. Instead, he ventured 1,700 miles away from the capital and its partisan wrangling to the sunny atrium of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he called the legislation crucial to injecting new life into the nation's moribund economy.
As 250 business leaders, Vice President Biden and a few members of Congress looked on, Obama sat at a wooden desk and signed the nearly 1,100-page bill, which was flown here with him aboard Air Force One.
"We have begun the essential work of keeping the American dream alive in our time," Obama said, calling the legislation "the beginning of the end" of what needed to be done to fix the economy.
The ceremony did little to encourage Wall Street's spirits Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 3.8 percent and flirted with its lowest close in 5 1/2 years.
Even before the signing, administration officials refused to rule out the idea that Obama might return to Congress to seek another infusion of cash. As Obama flew here, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that "the president is going to do what's necessary to grow this economy. But there are no particular plans at this point for a second stimulus package."
Obama said the bill will fund record investments in education, new energy research and new infrastructure that will lay the foundation for the nation's economic future. The bill includes a $400 tax break for most individual taxpayers and $800 for married couples, and checks would go even to those who do not earn enough to pay income taxes.
At the same time, the two-year bill expands the social safety net, including food stamp and child nutrition programs. There are also increased unemployment benefits and health-care access for those thrown out of work.
"We have done more in 30 days to advance the cause of health-care reform than this country has done in an entire decade," Obama said, prompting a standing ovation.
The stimulus plan is part of a three-pronged effort by the administration to arrest the nation's severe economic downturn. Last week, the administration outlined a plan to repair the nation's teetering financial system. And on Wednesday in Phoenix, one of the cities hit hardest by the nation's housing downturn, Obama is scheduled to announce plans to stem the rise in foreclosures.
Before Obama signed the bill, he and Biden were given a tour of the solar panels atop the Denver museum by Blake Jones, chief executive of Namaste Solar, a Boulder-based firm that has installed more than 500 solar systems in Colorado since 2006. In that time, the company has grown from three to 55 employees, but the economic downturn raised the prospect of layoffs. With the stimulus plan in place, Jones said, he expects to add more than 20 jobs in the next two years.
Similar enthusiasm was evident among other businesspeople who came to witness the signing.
"I think the stimulus bill would generate a lot of opportunity for us downstream," said Ashutosh Misra, senior vice president of Ascent Solar, a company that has developed a lightweight, flexible solar panel that can be incorporated into construction materials, eliminating the need for separate solar panels. "This is really going to help us in the long run."
Misra said it was a good idea for Obama to sign the bill in Denver. "He accepted his nomination here, so he should launch his major economic stimulus here," Misra said. "I believe that is good luck."
Touting the provisions in the plan that will bolster the nation's renewable-energy industry was one reason the White House scheduled the signing ceremony in Denver, aides said. With more than 300 sunny days a year and a major national laboratory focused on renewable energy in nearby Golden, Denver is considered a national hub for the burgeoning clean-energy industry.
Another reason to come west was to separate the stimulus discussion from the partisanship of Washington, where the ideological divide separating Democrats and Republicans seemed only to grow deeper with the debate over the plan. Only three Republican senators and no GOP House members voted for the bill, which Obama had once hoped would draw broad bipartisan support.
"This is far more about the people of the country than it is about Washington," said Obama's deputy press secretary, Jen Psaki. "Signing the legislation in a place outside the Beltway shines a light on the issues that average Americans are facing."
In an effort to make the stimulus plan more tangible to taxpayers, the Obama administration has released a state-by-state breakdown of where the money is going. The White House has also launched a Web site, Recovery.gov, that includes a short video of Obama talking about the plan and promises to track how the stimulus funds are spent.
It is unusual, but hardly unprecedented, for presidents to sign legislation away from Washington.
It was a favored technique of President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, he enacted a stopgap spending bill that prevented a government shutdown while at a summit in Iceland with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan also used his Santa Barbara ranch and the port of Long Beach as backdrops in bill-signing ceremonies.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill authorizing more than $1 billion in loan guarantees for New York City as thousands looked on at City Hall in Lower Manhattan. He also signed a major education bill in Virginia while campaigning for reelection in 1980. But, most often, presidents prefer the iconic backdrop of the White House to convey their authority as they sign legislation into law.
"What people see inside the Beltway is the nature of compromise and incrementalism that is part of the legislative process," said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a communications professor at George Mason University who has studied how presidents market themselves. "Outside, they notice that Obama wanted a major stimulus package and was able to deliver one within a month of becoming president."