In an iconic scene from Austin Powers, a newly-defrosted Dr. Evil demands that the world pay him a ransom of “One… Million… Dollars“–briefly forgetting that that the U.S. dollar doesn’t quite go as far in the 1990s as it did in the late 1960s. He raises his demand to $100 billion, and the world’s leaders are suitably shocked and outraged.
With President Barack Obama and the stimulus, we have a somewhat similar situation. In the fall of 2008, candidate Obama proposed a $50 billion stimulus to get the economy going, and was duly elected. But when he took office, he raised his request to over $800 billion–closer to the trillions than the billions–and set his presidency on a failed course.
Obama’s defenders, and those like Paul Krugman who embrace an extreme version of Keynesian economics (one that John Maynard Keynes would not have recognized), say the economy turned out to be in far worse shape than anyone had demanded, and/or that Obama’s stimulus, while bold, could have and should have been even larger.
But whatever the argument for priming the economic pump with federal cash, the fact is that Obama’s “stimulus” was a giveaway to state governments and political cronies. Its purported “shovel-ready” projects turned out not to be so “shovel-ready” after all. And it drastically expanded the federal deficit to levels that are economically unsustainable.
That broken promise came to define the Obama presidency. It unified a weakened GOP opposition in Congress, provoked the emergence of the Tea Party movement, and pushed independent voters towards Republicans. It revealed the true scale of Obama’s ambitions, as well as his resistance to working with political opponents to find solutions.
Nothing Obama has done since then has undone the damage. In fact, when Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Obama merely doubled down on his failing policies and brinkmanship, rejecting the proposals of his own bipartisan debt commission and preventing a “grand bargain” on the budget in debt-ceiling negotiations.
You can still believe–as a dwindling number of partisans do–that Obama’s stimulus was a success, and still be appalled by the scale of his deception. We needed to “Jump-start our economy with a $50 billion stimulus plan that would put money directly in the pockets of families struggling with rising food and mortgage payments,” Obama said.
There is no chance–none–that Obama would have been elected in November 2008 if he had told Americans he would spend nearly 20 times that amount just a few months later. No other promise Obama has broken has done more to define the failure of his presidency–or to make voters suspicious about what another four years would mean.