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Obama: Billions for Pork Barrel Earmarks

Repeating Clinton's 1993 Mistake

Barack Obama used his weekly radio address today to promise prompt action on a massive economic stimulus package:

President-elect Barack Obama said Saturday that he had started work on a sustained, two-year economic stimulus plan designed to create or save 2.5 million jobs, funnel money toward public works programs to repair the country’s failing infrastructure and invest in alternative energy programs.

Mr. Obama’s plan, which he announced in the Democratic radio address, is broader than the pledges he offered while campaigning for president. He said the deepening financial outlook demanded more robust action, so he directed his economic team to devise “a plan big enough to meet the challenges we face that I intend to sign soon after taking office.”

Mr. Obama said he hoped to have the plan completed, approved by Congress and ready for his signature shortly after he takes office in January. You can watch Obama’s address here.

Prior to the election, the House of Representatives passed a Democratic ‘stimulus’ bill, whose cost is estimated at about $61 billion. Democratic leaders promised that it would create ‘more than one million jobs’, largely by earmarking tens of billions for public works projects. Obama is promising that his bill will generate 2.5 million new jobs, but apparently not as efficiently as the measure pushed through by House Democrats — since Obama’s package will reportedly cost about $300 billion.

Barack Obama made clear during the campaign — notably in the Hofstra debate — that he would bring about a net federal spending cut. That will be particularly hard to achieve if he starts his administration with $300 billion in deficit spending.

Further, if Barack Obama’s challenge as president is to avoid the lurch to the left which characterized Bill Clinton’s first years in office — and which led to the 1994 backlash — he might be better off not copying exactly what Clinton did in 1993. Clinton too, campaigned on a promise to get the economy growing again without expanding the deficit. Read Brit Hume’s 1993 assessment of how Clinton’s presidency jumped the tracks early:

A little background: The stimulus package was a grab-bag of spending ranging from child immunization to summer youth jobs to unemployment compensation. The money was to come from deficit spending, which required the White House to declare it an “emergency” to get around budget rules. Part of the money, about $2.5 billion, was to be distributed to states and cities for spending on projects mayors and governors had placed on their “ready-to-go list.” It included such things as swimming pools in Midland, Texas, public housing for artists in San Francisco, and an Alpine slide in Puerto Rico…

Before it was over the President would put up a spirited fight for the plan that in no way suggested he was simply trying to keep faith with his allies on the left in Congress. The stimulus package was hardly the centerpiece of his economic program; indeed, there was considerable discussion during the transition period over whether there should even be one. It was one thing he had not promised. When the Republican filibuster began, though, the White House held nothing back. It tried different names for the bill. From a stimulus measure, it became an “investment” package, then a “jobs” bill. The President played down the importance of those gaudy “ready-to-go” proposals. He said his Budget Director would make sure none of the money was spent wastefully. Then he called the objections to the Alpine slides and swimming pools “amazing…”

Meanwhile, Bob Dole, a man not given to absolute pronouncements, was predicting the Republican solidarity would not be broken. Indeed, some of the filibuster’s most vocal leaders were such moderates as John Danforth of Missouri and John Chafee of Rhode Island. Dole was careful to give them a prominent role at news conferences. Still, the White House thought it could peel off a handful of the 43 Republicans, which would give Mr. Clinton the 60 votes he needed to break the filibuster. Clinton aides put out lists of public-works projects the filibuster was holding up, hoping the folks back home would pressure their senators. But the folks back home, it seemed, were not moved. A Newsweek poll showed a healthy majority favoring the stimulus package, but such polls often fail to measure intensity of sentiment. At home for the Easter recess, Republican senators were finding that nearly all the strong feeling was against the bill. Phone calls to Senate offices were overwhelmingly opposed…

A bigger debacle would be hard to imagine. Mr. Clinton had gotten his budget through Congress in record time. He had then gotten bogged down in a protracted, losing fight over a small element of that budget, one which put him on the side of deficit spending and conceded his opponents the high ground of deficit reduction. Repeatedly, he raised the stakes, which served only to raise the visibility of the issue and thus of his ultimate defeat.

Is Barack Obama getting ready to make the same mistake Bill Clinton made? Well, let’s first stipulate that 2009 is not 1993. By the time Clinton was sworn in the economy had been growing for a while; when Obama is inaugurated it will likely be in the middle of a significant recession. But Congress so far seems extremely reluctant to approve $25 billion to save the Big 3 — despite the near certainty that refusal to do so will lead to tens of thousands of layoffs. Will (an admittedly more Democratic) Congress suddenly provide $300 billion for a package full of pork-barrel projects, with job gains and losses that are far harder to pin down?

Barack Obama seems prepared to bet his prestige that they’ll do precisely that.

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