Obama to sell stimulus package to a wary Savannah

By Michael A. Fletcher
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SAVANNAH, GA. -- To hear President Obama tell it, his plans for reshaping the nation's economy are aimed at helping people like Ray Gaster, whose small chain of lumberyards here has been walloped by the recession.

Gaster's business has plummeted by more than two-thirds since 2006. At the same time, health insurance costs are becoming an increasingly heavy burden. Yet Gaster has nothing but skepticism for Obama policies designed to lighten that load. He says the economic stimulus package has been all but invisible to his business, and he fears the White House's renewed effort at overhauling health care would only make a bad situation worse.

"You know what it's like working with the government. It's just impossible," he said. "The health-care system we have now isn't perfect, but at least it works."

Obama plans to visit this charming coastal city on Tuesday to lead a day of meetings aimed at highlighting his economic policies and shoring up support for his ambitious but endangered domestic agenda. Success could ultimately turn on his ability to reshape perceptions of a stimulus plan that the White House says has pumped more than $130 million into the local economy, but many here grumble about what they see as its lack of effectiveness.

In Savannah, as elsewhere, that view is feeding a broader distrust of government that threatens to undermine the president's ambitions and political support.

"I think that people don't see the impact because it is not there," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), who like nearly every Republican in Congress voted against the stimulus measure a year ago and opposes much of the rest of Obama's domestic agenda.

Even some supporters of the president's policies complain that the stimulus money is not flowing fast enough. "The speed in which the applications have been approved has really been a little frustrating," said Savannah Mayor Otis S. Johnson (D), who nonetheless praised the plan for saving teaching and other public service jobs while providing funding for long-overdue projects.

"We are at the end of the first year of the stimulus, and we would think that more of the money would be out now," the mayor said.

Such criticism frustrates the Obama administration. It calls the stimulus plan an unqualified success, bringing $21 million in infrastructure money, $38.5 million in education funds, $4 million in transportation aid and $20 million in small-business loans to Savannah alone.

"The Recovery Act put 63,000 people back to work in Georgia, provided tax cuts to nearly 3.5 million Georgia families and made it possible for more than 1,200 small businesses to grow and hire," said Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman.

Obama has defended his economic policies -- from the bank and auto bailouts to the $862 billion stimulus plan, health-care reform and a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gases -- as aimed at helping the nation recover from the severe downturn while seeking to rebalance an economy that has gotten out of whack.

The president frequently notes that the economy has tilted toward giving too many of its rewards to top income earners and relying too heavily on unbridled consumerism. The government can pave the way toward a more prosperous and equitable future, he says, by investing in education, infrastructure, health care and renewable energy. But if the attitudes of small-business people and others here are any indication, convincing people that government is up to the job will be difficult.

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