Public is hopeful of Obama's program, but uneasy beneath the surface

The Baltimore Sun

ANNAPOLIS -The audience at a "green jobs" forum here the other night left little doubt about its liberal leanings.

There was spontaneous applause - twice - when speakers praised the local Democratic congressman, Frank Kratovil, for his vote in favor of the $787 billion stimulus package. About 100 people in the Broadneck High School cafeteria listened earnestly to lectures about climate change and about the hoped-for benefits, in new jobs and a less polluted environment, that would flow as a result of the new economic recovery law.

That made the private comments of audience members about what Washington is up to all the more striking.

In interviews, they confirmed that, yes, they look with great favor upon President Barack Obama's leadership. They also approve of his plan to use more government spending and individual tax cuts to reverse the downturn and revive economic growth.

At the same time, they're conflicted. They see the package as a necessary evil. They aren't convinced that it will do what it is supposed to do. And they worry that a sizable chunk of their tax money will be squandered in the process.

"It's awfully expensive, and the debt is awfully high," says Anne Libis of Randallstown, "so I just hope the experts know what they're doing."

"It's frightening," interjects her husband, Claude Libis, a retired director of the United Methodist Board of Child Care. "I know of nothing any better, and I have faith in the present administration." But if it were up to him, he says, "I'd have left the pork out."

Ken Moore, a 70-year-old retired real estate facilities manager from Owings, also hopes it works, so he won't be forced to go back to work to make ends meet. Moore's biggest concern is what he doesn't know: whatever lies hidden between the lines of the stimulus law, factors that may determine exactly how the money - as much as $10 billion or more for Maryland and its citizens - gets spent as it filters down to state and local levels.

"I'm scared to death as to what it doesn't say," he says. "Hopefully, there's no 'highway to nowhere' in there."

Moore says he thinks that, in terms of the magnitude of the spending, the package "is certainly a good first step."

"But we need it to produce jobs as quickly as possible," he said. "And all along the way, the special interests are going to be grabbing for their share."

Richard Montgomery, 55, of Elkton, a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency, says that, as a Democrat, he supports the stimulus package: "I haven't looked at it a hundred percent, but there's a lot of stuff in there that's not going to be accounted for. So I'm worried about that." In particular, he's troubled by the money Congress "is sticking into programs that are not going to help the economy."

Tim Yarbrough, 57, of Arnold, an electrical engineer with Northrop Grumman, is less concerned with the details of the stimulus law than with who is in charge, namely Barack Obama. "We voted for change in the fall, and I want it," he says. "We don't want Republicans to obstruct it. So let him lead."

The latest economic forecast by the Federal Reserve seems to amplify the worries lurking just below the surface among Obama supporters.

The central bank now concludes that the U.S. economy will shrink even more sharply than it had estimated only a few months ago. A gradual recovery could begin sometime in the second half of this year, in part as a result of the stimulus package, according to Fed economists. But it may be sometime in 2012 - coincidentally, the year of the next presidential election - before the job picture returns to normal.

These factors raise the stakes for Obama as he prepares to speak to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. He will lay out his first-year agenda, including plans to overhaul the health care system, spur alternative energy and keep a worsening situation in Afghanistan from becoming a quagmire.

The economy, of course, will dominate his remarks. He will be attempting to stave off erosion in public support and buy time as his administration copes with the most serious downturn since World War II. Opinion surveys show that the president's job approval rating remains relatively high. Even Congress got an uptick in popularity as it moved swiftly to provide economic relief.

How long the public's patience will last is anyone's guess. And that's not merely a concern for insiders. Mass psychology, as economists keep reminding us, is a central element in any financial contagion.

Financial markets have plunged since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced the administration's bank rescue initiative and Obama unveiled a housing rescue plan. The comments of ordinary Marylanders only underscore the point: Confidence remains, at best, shaky in Washington's ability to cope with the country's enormous problems, and it's not clear that anybody knows how to fix them.

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