Recent polls show that most Americans take a dim view of the federal stimulus program, even as economists praise its impact and President Barack Obama calls it a big reason the nation avoided a second Great Depression.

Republicans almost universally opposed the measure (it got no Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate, including Arlen Specter, who switched parties and became a Democrat soon after).


Obama has pointed out that Republican politicians aren't shy about taking credit when the federal stimulus money hits their districts (attending "the ribbon-cuttings" is how he put it--twice--during the Inner Harbor debate with members of the House Republican Conference).

That won't stop the attacks, though. Not when 45 percent of people questioned in a recent CNN poll said most or nearly all the money in the stimulus had been wasted, and another 29 percent said about half has been wasted.

One of the easiest Republican targets is the Democratic game (mandated by a Democratic Congress and administration) of trying to count the number of jobs created by the stimulus. Seems simple enough, but it isn't. The first round of numbers, back in the fall, left Obama and congressional Democrats scrambling to explain why they were spending so much to create so few jobs.

Round two began this weekend, with a data release late Saturday night. The tally: 599,108 jobs paid for in the last three months of 2009, when about $50 billion in stimulus money flowed.

Hmmm, a quick seat of the pants calculation puts an $83,450 cost figure on each job. That's pricey for a job that may not have lasted more than a few months. But wait! Turns out that isn't an accurate way to look at it, according to the administration.

An explanation from an Obama advisor, posted on the White House Web site, points out what the numbers actually do -- and don't -- mean. It's a useful primer, but relatively few people will ever see it. What they will see, of course, are crude estimates like the $83,000-a-job figure above, calculations based on government statistics and used to score political points.

Recovery.gov puts the number of jobs funded in Maryland during the last quarter of '09 at 6,759. That represents slightly fewer jobs for the state, on a proportional basis, than for the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, there's no way to know whether that last statement is accurate or not.

For one thing, the quality of job-number reporting varies widely among the government entities and private companies that got the money. For another, the neighborhood that Maryland finds itself in makes the math even fuzzier. The federal establishment in Washington is throwing off so much stimulus money in all directions, some of the jobs attributed to Virginia and D.C. should actually be counted in Maryland, since that's where the recipients live, pay taxes and, in many cases, work. The reverse is also true.

In other words, the 6,759 jobs total for Maryland may be even less useful than figures for other states.Nationwide, the largest number of jobs paid for with stimulus money were in education. In Maryland, the state Education department told the feds they had funded 1,257 jobs with stimulus money (assuming that two separate figures listed for the Maryland education department didn't reflect double-counting). Maryland state government reported 963.95 stimulus jobs during the same October 1-December 31 period.

Private businesses that paid for jobs in Maryland with stimulus money are also included in the totals. It's all at Recovery.gov, for those with the time and patience to dig it out, but you may need a lot of both.

According to the site, which is the federal government's official online source for stimulus information, a total of $1.18 billion in stimulus money has been spent in Maryland. Don't even try to find that number on the state's widely praised Recovery web site (where visitors find some information hasn't been updated since early August). The state site can be quite useful but it, too, requires patience and a level of computer sophistication that may be beyond most people.

And if attempts to make comparisons using federal stimulus data often turn into an apples-versus-oranges mismatch, as Ed DeSeve, the president's special advisor put it, trying to reconcile Washington stimulus numbers with figures out of Annapolis is even more mind-bending (though the overall story that the numbers tell is largely the same).

The stimulus program will almost certainly be a large issue in this fall's campaign, even if the fine distinctions get lost. But if politicians start spouting a lot of facts and figures about all the hard-earned tax dollars that got wasted in the stimulus disaster, consider the source.