By Michael D. Shear and Alexi Mostrous
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 17, 2009
The debate over the effectiveness of the government's massive stimulus act hit a fever pitch yesterday, as Vice President Biden took the White House message straight to the district of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a leading critic of the president's economic policies.
Without naming Cantor, the vice president, whom President Obama has dubbed the "sheriff" of the stimulus plan, trained his rhetoric squarely at the Richmond lawmaker, who has helped hone one of the GOP's most effective lines of attack on the president: that the $787 billion stimulus package has not produced jobs.
"To those who say that our economic decisions haven't saved jobs, it simply hasn't worked, I say, 'Look around you,' " Biden said in his appearance at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Cantor's Richmond area district.
"I say, 'Don't let your opposition to the Recovery Act blind you to the results. Come see what I see.' Look, workers rehired, factories reopened, cops on the street, teachers in the classroom, progress toward getting our economy back on the move."
Cantor swung back even before the vice president had begun speaking, hammering Obama and congressional Democrats for what he called a failed economic policy that had done little to create the jobs they promised. In a conference call yesterday afternoon, he implied that Biden and Obama were not listening to their constituents in Virginia.
"The president seems to be concerned about anything but creating jobs," Cantor said. "Millions of jobs will be crushed by this administration's policies."
The debate is crucial to Obama's political future, and both parties are working feverishly to shape public attitude about the direction of the economy. In recent weeks, the Republican argument against the stimulus act has been boosted by worse-than-expected job losses across the country.
Obama's team had predicted that the stimulus package would keep unemployment to a peak of about 8.5 percent, but the rate soared to 9.5 percent last month, leading Biden to say that the administration had "misread" the depth of the recession.
Confidence that the stimulus package will reverse the economic decline is dropping, and its success or failure could be a central issue in the 2010 midterm elections. In a recent Hotline survey, 39 percent said they were confident it would be successful in turning around the economy, a drop from 57 percent in March.
Even as Biden spoke, the White House assembled its top economic and political advisers at two 90-minute briefings for reporters, arguing that the stimulus act is working exactly as they expected: easing-- but not erasing -- the impact of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"The point of these programs on the jobs front is to cushion the blow," said Jared Bernstein, Biden's chief economic adviser. "I feel very confident that the American people understand that it will take a very, very long time to fill what the president described as a very, very deep hole."
Bernstein presented a series of charts indicating that $226 billion has been put to work already, the leading edge of a wave of money flowing through the economy that he said would reduce the number of job losses that would have otherwise occurred.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs, who skipped the president's trip to New Jersey and New York to conduct the briefings, accused critics of the president's stimulus plan of misleading the public.
"People have been allowed to get away with . . . making statements that they knew weren't factual," he said. "Washington games are still being played with the truth."
Biden yesterday used stimulus spending examples from Cantor's own district to attempt to undermine the Republican's attacks. The White House hopes to make an example of Cantor, accusing him of being on both sides of the stimulus issue.
Biden announced that $1.59 million of stimulus money would flow to Richmond, which would allow its police department to retain officers. And he noted that close to $20 million in stimulus money went to Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, to keep 275 teachers from being fired by the school district.
Cantor made himself a target of White House ire last week when he delivered the Republican Party's weekly radio address. In it, he called the stimulus package a "bill full of pork barrel spending, government waste and massive borrowing cleverly called 'stimulus' " and said, "Obama's economic decisions have not produced jobs, have not produced prosperity and simply have not worked."
Although Cantor has been outspoken in his criticism of the stimulus act as wasteful and ineffective, he recently joined his congressional colleagues in urging the Virginia Department of Transportation to apply for stimulus money for high-speed rail.
Biden mocked that position last night, saying: "The very guys who are saying this is a terrible act want me to make sure you get high-speed rail. Isn't that kind of funny?"
Yesterday, Cantor said that his constituents "overwhelmingly" supported the rail line between Richmond and Washington, but added: "Despite my heartfelt support for high-speed rail, the merit of this one project does not excuse the thousands of others that do not create jobs."
In advance of Biden's speech, Cantor added that "where I'm looking is where families of Virginia and America are looking and that's at the unemployment rate, which is skyrocketing. The reality is that people are losing their jobs. Families are going into economic free fall."
That argument was echoed by Virginia's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob McDonnell, who has made his opposition to the federal stimulus act a key part of his campaign against Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.
"Virginians are hurting and the unemployment rate is climbing months after the stimulus bill went into effect," his campaign said in a statement after Biden's visit to Virginia.
Deeds, who stood with Biden at the event and was to join him at a fundraiser last night, has criticized McDonnell for opposing the use of $125 million in stimulus money to enhance state unemployment benefits.
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.