By Kristen Wyatt
Denver — A photo of President Barack Obama hangs on the wall in CoraFaye’s Cafe, a short walk from the Denver museum where Obama signed into law the most sweeping U.S. economic package in decades in an attempt to put people back to work and end the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
But the customers at CoraFaye’s roll their eyes when asked whether the 2009 stimulus made a difference.
“Are you kidding?” said Donn Headley Sr., a 61-year-old whose heating and air conditioning company closed last year because of slow business.
Republicans nationwide are attacking Democrats with a “failed stimulus” campaign drumbeat. In ads, debates and campaign mailers, they deride the $814 billion program as having reinforced out-of-control spending and doing little to help.
In reality, the stimulus program has done more than Republicans often claim — but less than Democrats boast in the face of a sluggish economy and high unemployment. Moreover, the spending continues into next year, meaning the effect of the program cannot be fully measured.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month that 1.4 million to 3.3 million people are employed because of the program, a blow to Republican claims that the stimulus failed to increase employment.
The stimulus program has kept many state and local governments fiscally viable, and the money has been a boon to the construction industry, financing thousands of road and bridge projects. In other areas — tax cuts, Medicaid health benefits, unemployment checks, food stamps — the stimulus has provided some relief to millions suffering in a tough economy.
Still, voters are skeptical of the price tag. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 68 percent considered the stimulus money “wasted,” with only 29 percent describing it as mostly well spent.
That perception has turned the stimulus into an effective political stick for Republicans to wield against Democrats.
The stimulus has proved a powerful weapon in the GOP arsenal because its benefits are unclear for many voters, said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.
“There is a general sense that Democrats got to Washington and busted open the piggy bank, squandered everything, and we haven’t seen much improvement as a result,” Voss said.
At CoraFaye’s in Denver, owner Priscilla Smith said she’s an Obama fan but doesn’t think the stimulus helped business. People are eating out less, and except for a new beauty parlor next door, there’s not a lot of additional shops popping up on her busy street.
“The jury’s still out on the stimulus for me, I guess,” Smith said. “I don’t see it directly — not yet, anyway.”
In a suburban Denver House district once considered safe for Democrats, Rep. Ed Perlmutter is on the defensive in part because of his vote for the stimulus. Asked why he voted for it, he pointed to a map of his district.
“We were losing 786,000 jobs a month, OK? See that district? Seven hundred eighty-six thousand is more than all the people in that district. A month. We were in an economic free-fall to places none of us could imagine,” Perlmutter said.
It’s not an uplifting sell. But that’s the corner Democrats find themselves in.
“I think the presumption two years ago was that the economy would be in a better place,” said Scott Adler, a political scientist at the University of Colorado. “But a lot of voters have not really experienced a significant change in their day-to-day experiences. So the stimulus, the argument that it prevented it from being worse, that’s hard to sell to voters still struggling with their jobs and cuts to their kids’ schools.
“If you’re a Democrat,” Adler said, “there’s only so much you can say.”[polldaddy poll=”3956610″]
Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno also contributed to this report.