President Barack Obama traveled with Vice President Joe Biden to Denver, Colorado to sign the $787 billion economic recovery legislation that has taken up most of Mr. Obama’s time during his first month in office. Rather than use the White House as the setting for the bill signing ceremony, President Obama chose to go on the road to provide a better visual for the legislation that is being closely watched as the administration’s first major foray into economic policy. Joining the President and Vice President for the bill signing at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science was Governor Bill Ritter and a host of state officials along with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the state’s former Senator.
The bill signing marked a hard fought victory for President Obama. From the outset, Mr. Obama appealed to Republicans to support the legislation and repeatedly appealed to the minority in Congress to work with him in a bipartisan spirit. Despite Mr. Obama’s trip to Capitol Hill to visit the Republican Caucus and spending three hours listening to their concerns, and making personal calls to Republicans in the House and Senate, the final vote tally was along straight party lines. The exception, of course, were the three Republican moderated in the Senate – Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania – who provided Mr. Obama with the necessary votes after drawing concessions on spending in the massive bill. Democrat Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska also played a key role in drawing up the compromise in the Senate that substituted for the original bill. In many ways, despite the opposition of Republicans on the Hill, the bill drew bipartisan support when factoring in the three Republican moderates and Republican governors who strongly supported the measure.
The President said, “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I will sign today -- a plan that meets the principles I laid out in January -- is the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history. It 's the product of broad consultation and the recipient of broad support -- from business leaders, unions, public interest groups, from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as the AFL-CIO. From Democrats and Republicans, mayors as well as governors.”
In the face of a rapidly deteriorating economic picture, President Obama was hard pressed to get the legislation, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, through Congress. The news of January’s job loss totaling near 600,000 workers and 7.6 percent unemployment gave the White House a new sense of urgency. The administration was also struggling with revamping the Treasury Department’s bank bailout program against criticism that the Troubled Assets Relief Program provided federal funds to financial institutions that were essentially hording the money. As if that were not enough, there has been a steady stream of mass layoffs this month that will definitely show up in this month’s employment report that will be released the first week of March.
The legislation is sweeping in scope, touching upon many sectors that have been devastated by the current recession. Mr. Obama made note of the historic investment in infrastructure, stating, “Because we know we can't build our economic future on the transportation and information networks of the past, we are remaking the American landscape with the largest new investment in our nation's infrastructure since Eisenhower built an Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. Because of this investment, nearly 400,000 men and women will go to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our faulty dams and levees, bringing critical broadband connections to businesses and homes in nearly every community in America, upgrading mass transit, building high-speed rail lines that will improve travel and commerce throughout our nation.”
The infrastructure spending in the legislation is much anticipated as many cash starved municipalities are looking for any way to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges and mass transit facilities. The U.S. Conference of Mayors surveyed their membership last month and had the mayors inventory the “shovel ready” projects in their backyard. Many of these projects had been in the pipeline for years but cities were cash starved and unable to come up with the financing to complete them. The stimulus legislation represents an unprecedented opportunity for cities, counties and states to repair, rebuild and construct their transportation infrastructure at a time when dependency on federal relief is on the upswing. Though spending for school construction was rejected by Republicans, the legislation still makes provisions for a significant amount of money for construction on transportation infrastructure.
The bill is not all bricks and mortar, as President Obama noted. “Because we know America can't out-compete the world tomorrow if our children are being out-educated today, we're making the largest investment in education in our nation's history. It's an investment that will create jobs building 21st century classrooms and libraries and labs for millions of children across America.” Similarly, the legislation targets the health care sector and the development of “green” commerce that will spawn jobs in renewable energy. Joining the bill signing yesterday and introducing President Obama was Blake Jones, president of Namaste Solar, a Denver based company that has installed solar panels on the governor’s mansion and the museum that served as host for the bill signing.
The legislation’s scale is unprecedented even after about $40 billion was stripped from the bill during the House-Senate conference committee. However, President Obama has been indicating since its original introduction in the House that the bill is not a panacea. He has consistently referenced it as a “first step” on a long road to recovery. The administration has been careful not to leave the impression that the bill is a silver bullet. In fact, there were news reports that White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested there could be an Act II to follow the current legislation.
Though the debate on the recovery package was intense and lively, it was a quick victory for Mr. Obama when considering the compressed calendar following his inauguration. It was also a valuable lesson learned for the administration as other big-ticket issues such as the housing crisis and health care wait in the wings for Mr. Obama to come off stage. Next up for President Obama is the housing crisis as the administration seeks ways to put the brakes on mortgage foreclosures and will be looking to press lenders who may be on the cusp of failure and are looking for the federal government for relief.