By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
CINCINNATI, July 9 -- In a campaign-style speech designed to seize the initiative from Republican critics and reassure voters that the White House has a plan to rescue the lagging economy, Vice President Biden forcefully defended the administration's economic recovery package on Thursday and asked for patience.
Biden said money from the $787 billion stimulus bill is flowing and will flow faster, directly saving public service jobs. He urged Americans to recognize the severity of the administration's inherited problems and promised, "You're going to see more pace on the ball."
"Remember, we're only 140 days into this deal. It's supposed to take 18 months," Biden said during his appearance in a pivotal electoral battleground state where unemployment has reached 10.8 percent and support for President Obama's handling of the economy has fallen below 50 percent in some polls.
Referring to the Republicans who have upped their attacks on the stimulus package in hopes of turning next year's midterm elections into a referendum on Democratic economic policy, Biden asked: "Would they do nothing?"
The aggressive tone and tempo of his speech came at a moment when the Obama administration is facing sustained criticism from the GOP amid worries that the recovery may stall. It also came near the end of a rough week for Biden, who said Sunday that the administration "misread the economy," only to have Obama publicly disagree with him.
National polls show Obama's approval rating slipping, although still above 50 percent. The Gallup poll's daily tracking put the number at 56 percent on Wednesday, down from 63 percent in late June.
In Northside, a working-class neighborhood where Biden spoke outside a gutted factory that is scheduled to be transformed into housing, residents said they have seen little benefit from the stimulus package, which remains about 85 percent unspent.
Yet they were divided on Obama's handling of the economy, with many willing to heed Biden and give the administration time for the legislation and other measures to work.
"It takes a long time. He's not a miracle worker," Lon King, a landscaper whose business is down 20 percent from 2007, said as he sat in his pickup truck, finishing lunch. "Who's got the figures on how bad the numbers would have been without the stimulus package?"
Shenika Hales, a store clerk and college student, said she has heard former Obama supporters "nailing him" for not turning around the economy. She does not agree with them, but she understands.
"It's kind of gradually getting better, but it's still kind of shaky," she said of the local economy as she retrieved a load of laundry from a coin-operated washer. "It can't come as fast as people would want it."
The past several weeks have provided some of the toughest news for Obama since he took office in January. The national unemployment rate rose a tenth of a point, to 9.5 percent -- higher than the White House had projected -- and Republicans have increased their attacks.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) blasted Biden before he set foot in the state, and he set up a conference call with reporters to start soon after the vice president departed for another recovery-focused event in New York.
Boehner told reporters that Obama's policies will "destroy jobs rather than create jobs."
"Our nation's economy has taken a beating," he said. "The answer isn't more taxes, more spending, more mandates and more borrowing from China, the Middle East, our kids and grandkids."
In an earlier statement relayed by the Republican National Committee, the House leader said the administration's effort "clearly isn't working." He added, "The people of Ohio -- like people all over America -- have a right to know: Where are the jobs?"
A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohioans released this week showed the president's economic approval rating dropping from 57 percent to 46 percent in the past two months. Forty-eight percent of those polled said they now disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.
His overall approval rating in Ohio dropped from 62 percent to 49 percent. The most significant drop was of 21 points among independent voters -- a bloc crucial to Obama's victory in a state that George W. Bush carried in 2000 and 2004.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a decline in the number of people who have faith in the stimulus package. The drop in confidence was steepest in the Midwest. In April, 60 percent of Midwesterners said the package had already improved or would improve the economy. The number fell to 49 percent in late June.
Administration officials reported this week that only $56 billion in stimulus funding had been delivered by June 30, along with $43 billion in tax breaks. Biden said the money has saved tens of thousands of public service jobs that would have been lost if state and local governments had received no federal money.
"It's a hard case to prove," he conceded, "but look around at the people who have jobs."
Biden spoke specifically of teachers and police officers, repeatedly demanding of Republicans who voted against the stimulus measure, "What would they do?"
"What would they say to those tens of thousands of teachers who got their pink slips this year but are able to go back into the classroom?" he asked. "What would they do . . . [let] all those cops get laid off? Would they say, 'Okay, no problem?' We are not there yet, but we are moving in the right direction," Biden said. "I am absolutely confident that we are on the right track."
As politicians took sides in the brewing debate, with Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) criticizing the "non-stimulus spending bill," Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said hundreds of millions in Medicaid money allowed Ohio to end the budget year in balance. Overall, the state expects $8 billion in stimulus funding.
"Things are very difficult now," Strickland said in an interview. "But they would be so much worse if it were not for the federal stimulus resources. It would be so much worse."
Bob Bertrand, a retired facility engineer, considers himself a skeptic. He was never an Obama fan, but his opinion of the president has gone down. "I think it's a waste of money," he said of the stimulus package. "We're in worse shape now than we've ever been."
Yet even Bertrand does not think Obama merits a verdict on his economic policy just yet. "I don't think he's been in office long enough to tell," he said.
Jordan Meehan, who teaches art as part of a Northside nonprofit group, said he was unconcerned as he headed down the street with three co-workers.
"When has anything," he asked, "ever worked in a day?"