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Democrats get little boost from stimulus

Map of the 13th Distirct in Ohio
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post

Polls have shown that many Americans view the stimulus as a bust. Sutton -- who has been stuck working in Washington for most of the summer as Ganley campaigns in the state -- said she realizes that it won't be easy to convince some voters that Democrats did the right thing.

"There are trust issues," Sutton said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. The loss of faith in government "hurts our country in politics and in spirit. There's a lot of anxiety, and I understand the anxiety."

How can nearly $1 trillion flush through the U.S. economy, with tangible results, and still leave voters dubious?

Some blame Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress for failing to set clear and realistic expectations.

The centerpiece of the stimulus effort, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved in February 2009, included a sprawling array of policy initiatives. Obama got to deliver on campaign promises to invest in alternative energy and advance high-speed rail development. Liberals got their funding for Head Start and community food banks, and centrists got middle-class tax breaks. (Republicans saw very little in the package that they liked; only three GOP Senators and no Republican House members voted for it.)

It proved difficult to keep track of all that spending, and the White House and Democratic leaders had a hard time showing how it was contributing to the recovery.

"The branding and marketing was done very poorly," said Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economist who supported the stimulus. "When you spend that much money, there should be more recognition."

About $2 billion of the stimulus money flowed to Sutton's Ohio District. The funds are paying for 628 projects, making it one of the largest concentrations of federal spending in the Midwest.

The list includes $400 million to replace the decrepit Inner Belt Bridge in suburban Cleveland and $25 million to expand a BASF Catalysts lithium-ion battery plant in Elyria. The Akron Urban League received $2 million to expand broadband Internet service to 3,500 users, creating 13 jobs. The town of Lorain secured $15,390 to retrofit seven school buses with pollution-control gear, and the Ohio Department of Transportation won a $2,500 grant to buy spare parts for the Brunswick municipal fleet. And the Car Allowance Rebate System, better known as Cash for Clunkers, lured customers into auto showrooms, staving off layoffs at the local Ford factory and its suppliers.

Yet it could take months, even years, to see the benefits from some stimulus projects. A year ago, Akron-based First Energy Service Co. applied for a $36 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to install 5,000 high-tech meters in Cleveland area homes, a project that would turn the region into a test market for "smart grid" technology aimed at reducing energy consumption.

Energy was one of Obama's stimulus priorities. With plans to eventually reach 44,000 households, the company could wind up creating an estimated 1,200 jobs in installation services, infrastructure upgrades and meter manufacturing.

A year later, the project has yet to get underway. First Energy's application was approved in late October, but Ohio hasn't come through with $36 million in matching funds. "There is a lot that goes into preparing something like this before the first dollar is spent or the customer sees any effect," First Energy spokeswoman Ellen Raines said.

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