Ezra Klein watches the train wreck:
Ezra Klein - Why does Obama keep telling reporters there are 'no shovel-ready projects'?: Perhaps I should've written this post before interviewing Jared Bernstein, the vice president's chief economist, on the same subject. But if you read that interview closely, you'll see a White House that doesn't exactly know what to do with the president's comments. The administration doesn't think the stimulus failed. At the end of the day, the law met its spending targets. As promised, it dispensed with 70 percent of the funds within two years. Most of the remaining money will pay out when projects that are underway reach completion. Today, the White House released a video in which Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, argues that the intervention saved the job market (though by looking only at private-sector jobs, he stacks the deck, as the public sector is where recent job losses have been concentrated).
So why did the president tell Peter Baker -- and before him, David Brooks -- that there are no "shovel-ready programs"? Those were three of the most important words used to sell the program -- and the president's decision to walk them back is giving plenty of ammunition to his enemies. And shovel-ready is not a controversial concept: It's what Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas conservative, called his city's rail project when he wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for some of the stimulus funding that he opposed.
And Sessions is no isolated case: Over the past two years, the stimulus has funded more than 15,000 transportation projects. In total, it's funded more than 75,000 projects. Those efforts weren't ready for shovels the morning after the bill passed, but it didn't take more than a couple of months to break ground on many of them, and all of them hit within the stimulus's two-year target range.
And even if the president was disappointed by the progress, why is he giving ammunition to the stimulus's critics only weeks before the midterm election? He couldn't have told Baker they'd conduct the interview Nov. 3?
The big news on the stimulus going into November should've been this report from the Center for Public Integrity pulling together the many, many letters Republican lawmakers sent asking the administration to use the stimulus to fund projects in their district and saying, forthrightly, that those projects would create jobs and improve the economy. Obama should be going around the country, setting up a podium at each of those projects and making clear just what it is the stimulus did, and just what it was that Republicans opposed. Instead, he's telling reporters that the foundational phrase of his sales pitch for the stimulus was a mistake, which implies to voters that the Republicans are right when they say the stimulus didn't work.
File this one under "unforced errors," I guess.
And here is poor Jared Bernstein trying to deal with the damage:
Ezra Klein - Are there 'shovel-ready projects?' An interview with Jared Bernstein.: Ezra Klein: The president has now told at least two journalists that "there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” He obviously believes it. But what, exactly, does he mean?
Jared Bernstein: The president definitely had some initial frustration that projects were taking longer to get up and running than he wanted. About 100 days into the stimulus, the president and the vice president spoke to the agencies about speeding things up and laid out ambitious targets. And ultimately, they met and exceeded every one of those targets. The fact is that there are more than 75,000 infrastructure projects up and running today and creating jobs.
EK: What were the targets? How did the White House judge whether the stimulus was working?
JB: The most salient target was to spend 70 percent by September 30th, 2010. And we hit that target. We expected to have saved or created around 3.5 million jobs by this point, and according to the estimates of outside evaluators like the Congressional Budget Office, we hit that target, too. If you want more targets, read the report from the vice president that we released last week. It lists more of the specific goals the president set at that 100-day mark, like seeing 100 airports being improved, 1,500 highways being improved, 360 military facilities being repaired, and many more, by September 2009. And the agencies met or exceeded every one of those goals.
EK: You said you've spent about 70 percent of the money in the first two years. Where's the other 30 percent?
JB: The rest of that money is obligated, meaning that it's supporting projects that are under contract but are not yet completed. The way the spending works is that we don't provide the final check until the project is done. Just like if you pay someone to add on to your house, you make some initial payments, but you don't let go of all the money until the project is done. So the majority of that 30 percent are payments to come for projects that aren't finished. Then there are some tax receipts that are slotted to pay out over the next few months and things like Medicaid and food assistance.
EK: None of this really explains Obama's disappointment with shovel-ready projects. You're saying the work fulfilled expectations. He keeps telling reporters that it didn't.
JB: Very early on in the Recovery Act, the VP went to visit this bridge in Pennsylvania that was a good candidate for repair. He asked “how shovel-ready is it?” It happened that the engineer was there and said, “hold on, I’ve got the blueprints right over here in my car.” He actually got them and showed them to the VP. They quickly got a transportation grant to fix the bridge but didn’t start construction for a few months because the local government didn’t want to have to divert traffic patterns until the summer. Now the project is completed. That’s just the way these things unfold sometimes. There’s often going to be some wiggle between approval and shovels in the ground. The point is there are now tens of thousands of projects creating good jobs and we should build on that momentum.
EK: The White House is asking Congress to put in a lot more money for infrastructure repair. But a lot of my readers are skeptical. We've spent more than $100 billion, we've started more than 75,000 projects, we're skeptical that this spending can come online as quickly as we'd like to see it move. Is there really more to do, and can it be done in an effective manner?
JB: This isn't hard to conceive of once you spend some time in this world: One program I liked in the Recovery Act was the 48C tax credit to incentivize the production of clean energy manufacturing products here in the United States. Thanks to this program, we've broken ground on nine new advanced-battery factories, and we think we can double that in the next few years and give the U.S. a global footprint in that industry. The smart grid program installed more than two million smart meters. There's just so much to be done in the infrastructure space, whether that's repairing our infrastructure or building out things like smart-grid systems and high-speed rail.