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“Time for Talk Over,” White House Tone Changes on Stimulus

As the stimulus bill picture takes a clearer turn toward possible Senate obstruction by Republicans unwilling to divert from the zombie-like mantra of tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts, the White House is showing both impatience and signs of a more targeted approach to selling the bill.

During remarks to the Department of Energy Staff, Barack Obama said, “The time for talk is over.” Today during the daily briefing, Robert Gibbs acknowledged, after a series of questions on the perceived change in White House tone toward the speed of the stimulus, that “it’s fair to read impatience into that.” Indeed, in Obama’s penned op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post uses his trademark rhetorical phrase-repetition, “[n]ow is the time.”

What are the other signs the White House is gearing up to put more direct pressure on Congress to get a stimulus bill to his desk by the President’s Day (self-imposed) deadline?

Yesterday, the White House released a state-by-state breakdown on the projected effects of the stimulus. Piggybacking off January’s Romer and Bernstein report, “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan,” the White House Estimate listed the number of jobs the stimulus is expected to create in each state.

For example, in Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins’ Maine, the White House projects 16,300 jobs (“with over 90% in the private sector”) over two years, a $1,000 tax cut immediately affecting 550,000 workers, an additional $100 per unemployment insurance check for the 71,000 laid off workers during the recession. Funding to modernize 38 Maine schools is highlighted, as well as 17,000 families eligible for a partially-refundable $2,500 college tax credit.

In Arlen Specter’s Pennsylvania, the White House numbers are 151,700 new jobs, tax cuts for 4,910,000 workers, improved UI for 1,056,000 laid off during the recession.

In George Voinovich’s Ohio, 141,700 new jobs and 4,530,000 workers getting a $1K tax cut; improved UI benefits for 666,000.

Collins, Snowe, Specter and Voinovich are significant, since they comprise the tiny club of four moderate Republicans willing to vote “No” on last night’s DeMint amendment. The DeMint amendment, which 36 Republicans voted for, would have replaced all spending in the stimulus package with tax cuts. Judd Gregg, Obama’s Commerce Secretary-designate, abstained. (It should be noted that Gregg’s intended abstention on voting has the effect of reducing the number of votes needed for cloture to 59 as long as there remains no certified winner in Minnesota.) (Yeah, I’m an idiot.)

Specifics matter. When the public debate is between “absurdly high number X” and “absurdly high number Y,” the abstraction invites easy criticism. Indeed, Republicans have held the upper hand in some aspects of the stimulus debate thus far, picking off tiny pieces such as the funding for family planning and winning smallball framing wars. By winning very specific smallball battles, Republican messaging has been able to measurably win the early battle in painting the stimulus as just a bunch of Democratic pork, as we noted last night.

As Obama and his White House are increasingly putting out signals of restlessness — Obama’s op-ed, “[t]he time for talk is over,” Gibbs agreeing it’s fair to call that “impatience” — they may be willing to start exerting state-specific muscle.

Neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden have shown up personally in those particular three states (Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio) to push the specific numbers — yet. Today, Joe Biden showed up at a MARC station in Steny Hoyer’s district in Laurel, Maryland to tout the president’s stimulus plan and highlight the local and statewide effects. To wit, on infrastructure: $400 million to improve Maryland highways, $100 to upgrade and expand transit systems in the state, and $150 million to invest in state water and sewer projects. On jobs and schools, the White House’s statement on Biden’s visit cited 70,000 Maryland jobs to be created and 138 schools to be modernized. The statement even drilled to the district level, citing 9,500 jobs created or saved in Hoyer’s territory.

Obviously, neither Hoyer nor Maryland’s Congressional caucus as a whole needs to be targeted. Is today’s Biden visit a trial balloon, a signal that the White House is willing to go to do more road legwork, next time in a key Senator’s home state? So far, the White House hasn’t been willing to comment on whether such a strategy is either coordinated or imminent. Still, the uptick in Obama’s rhetoric, as well as today’s use of “Maryland as a case study” to push specific numbers to localized areas may be an indication it is.