Will the stimulus bill boost public confidence?

Americans need a lift. A big spending package may provide at least a little one, pollsters say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Cheryl Kelly of Decatur, Ga., who was laid off six months ago by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, expects the stimulus bill will help put food on the table.
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One goal of the $800-plus billion economic stimulus package is to give Americans a lift, a sense that Uncle Sam has a solution to today’s economic woes.

But will the plan provide a break from the steady onslaught of gloom – from a dizzy stock market to continuing problems of the big banks? Will it give people confidence to buy new cars or perhaps just splurge a little?

Some public opinion seers suggest it might help, perhaps showing that the new president and Congress can accomplish something. Other poll watchers, though, caution that the public has low expectations, with a large number of people feeling the package won’t have much effect on them.

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“It might be less than you hoped but better than nothing,” says Dennis Jacobe, chief economist at the Gallup Organization.

But pollster John Zogby says once President Obama signs the stimulus package, it can be viewed as action.

“The bottom line is Americans are looking for the president and Congress to get together and make something happen, and the action part is greater than the specifics,” says Mr. Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International.

Great expectations? No.

The most recent Gallup numbers certainly show the public has modest expectations. Only 12 percent think it will make the economy “a lot better,” and 32 percent believe it will make it “a little better.” However, 41 percent think it will have no effect and 12 percent think it will be worse.

“There can be some psychological effect but how long it can last is another issue,” says Mr. Jacobe.

Mr. Obama realizes he needs to build support for the massive bill. That’s one of the reasons he held a prime-time press conference on Monday evening to make his case for his approach and will travel Thursday to Peoria, Ill., after town hall meetings in Fort Myers, Fla., and Elkhart, Ind., earlier this week.

Past presidents have gone to the people to try to marshal support for their legislation. Zogby recalls former President Lyndon Johnson campaigning for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was not particularly popular among conservative members of Congress. “In his State of the Union address, he told them, ‘My predecessor [President John F. Kennedy] wanted this passed,' and it was passed by April,” says Zogby, the author of the recent book, “The Way We’ll Be.”

Obama rhetoric

Jacobe says one of the problems for Obama is that to spur lawmakers he has had to talk about the depressed state of the economy. For example, in December, as president-elect he warned Americans that the economic news was going to get worse before it gets better.

“It’s really tough to get confidence in the future when you are dropping 150,000 jobs a week,” says Jacobe.

In Atlanta, some of the newly unemployed are only somewhat buoyed by the stimulus bill. Floyd Dorsey, who lost his job at a warehouse, says the stimulus bill amounts to a welcome “investment in America.”

But will it help his situation directly? “I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s not going to solve anything for a year or two.”

Will aid be spent?

However, the prospect of the stimulus package passing gives some hope to Cheryl Kelly, who was laid off six months ago by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a state agency. Now stuck couch-surfing at a friend’s apartment, she expects the stimulus bill will help put food on the table.

“Some people may feel better about going out and spending money, but most people in my shoes will budget and shop wisely,” she says.

In fact, Americans of modest means seem to get the most comfort out of the legislation. Kim Bryson, a data analyst for the Chicago public school system, says last year’s rebate check allowed her to pay some bills and put some money into savings.

The pending stimulus bill, if passed, “will keep me afloat,” she says. And she will also spend some of the money. “I’ll buy groceries more often, fill the tank full instead of half-full or finally get the book I wanted – that sort of thing.”

Middle class less upbeat

However, middle- to upper-middle-class Americans are less confident the legislation will help them personally.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything that will benefit me,” says Nick Pozzebon, a Chicago-based account executive with a company that reinsures properties. But he can envision some indirect benefit if there is significant spending on infrastructure projects. “I certainly deal with a lot of that in my job,” he says.

Atlanta resident John Krisle, who deals with commercial real estate, doubts the legislation will have any impact on how he spends. “I have always been careful about what I buy,” he says. But if the legislation helps drive consumers to the malls, he says that would help his company since part of its portfolio includes shopping centers.

“I guess I would say I am hopeful it will be effective,” he says.

But, some Americans may end up being disappointed by the legislation. Chicago cab driver Joan Barnes hopes to get health insurance “out of this deal.” But, so far, health insurance is only being extended to those who have lost their jobs.

Hamid Garibovic, a valet parker at Maggiano’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Chicago, wants the legislation to turn the calendar back to the year 2000 when he says, “This country was the strongest in the world, when people believed the country was No. 1.”

Too much money?

In the CNN poll, 55 percent of Americans felt the stimulus package was too much money. Atlanta IRS agent Brian Word says, “I don’t know if it needs to be that big, but I agree something needs to be done.”

His concern about the expense is echoed by Tiffany, an Atlanta resident who did not want to give her last name. But she thinks the psychological lift alone could be worth the hefty price tag.

“I think this would give people hope that things are going to get better and give them the kind of boost they need,” she says. “It’s a dispirited country right now.”

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson in Atlanta and contributor Mark Guarino in Chicago contributed to this report.

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