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Happy birthday to the stimulus

By Gabriella Schwarz and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
  • Thursday is the second anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Vice President Biden hails it as a success, while Republicans call it a failure
  • The nonpartisan CBO says the stimulus bill boosted growth and created jobs
  • GOP looks to unseat pro-stimulus senators in high-unemployment states

Washington (CNN) -- Two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the stimulus package into law, and ever since that day, politicians and political organizations have used the measure as a political football.

Nothing was changed on the actual anniversary Thursday, with Democrats led by Vice President Joe Biden touting the $814 billion bill as an innovative and necessary step to avert a depression and grow the damaged economy, while Republicans derided it as a glaring example of failed liberal spending policy.

At a carefully staged public meeting with Cabinet members overseeing stimulus spending, Biden quoted a TIME magazine article that said the bill "helped avoid a depression; reduced the unemployment rate by 2%; cut taxes for 95% of Americans; bailed out the states to prevent mass layoffs; funded more than 75,000 projects to upgrade roads, parks, sewers and just about everything else; and made unprecedented investments in renewable energy, health-information technology, broadband, the smart grid and much, much more -- with no earmarks and virtually no fraud."

"As you might expect, I think that's an accurate assessment," Biden concluded to laughter.

He then handed over his leadership role in implementing the stimulus package to new White House budget director Jacob Lew, with Cabinet members including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan praising Biden for his stewardship of a program they described as innovative and transformative.

"This ought to be a celebration, that's what this ought to be," LaHood said of the anniversary.

2010: Obama praises stimulus efforts
2010: GOP leader to probe stimulus funds

Instead, polls show the American public deeply divided over the issue, in part because of a steady drumbeat of Republican attacks on the bill dating back to congressional debate two years ago. The measure passed with little GOP support back then, and Republican leaders continued with their criticism Thursday.

"The bottom line here is that two years after the president told us he was investing in our future, here is what we have to show for it: higher unemployment than was predicted and trillions, trillions more in debt," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said on the chamber floor.

Republican National Committee Chairman Rance Priebus took aim at the unemployment rate of 9% or higher, despite Democratic pledges that the stimulus bill would hold down unemployment at 8% or lower.

"What has been the result of nearly $1 trillion spent on the so-called 'stimulus'? Twenty-one months of unemployment at or above 9 percent, 2.6 million jobs lost, unsustainable budget deficits and an ever-growing national debt," Priebus said in a statement.

So who is right? At the Cabinet meeting, Biden and others noted the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has reported the stimulus bill saved as many as 3 million jobs and reduced the unemployment rate by as much as 2 percentage points.

They cited what they called unprecedented transparency in the program, with websites that allow people to track stimulus projects around the country, and noted that out of 75,000 projects with 250,000 contracts handing out stimulus funding, less than 1,500 have required investigation for possible wrongdoing and so far, 45 have resulted in convictions, pleas or settlements.

Noting that the problems amount to less than one-half of 1% of the total, Chu joked the program was "more pure than Ivory Soap," which boasts 99.4% purity.

At the White House, new Press Secretary Jay Carney used his experience as Biden's former spokesman to defend the Recovery Act when questioned by reporters.

"The Recovery Act was a major reason why we are now in a situation where we've been growing consistently for many consecutive quarters and why we have created more than a million jobs in the last year," Carney said, later adding that "a substantial portion of that private sector job growth has been as a result of the president's policies -- the Recovery Act and other policies that he pursued to save this economy from turning a horrible situation into a catastrophic situation in our country, with the kind of unemployment that we haven't seen since the Great Depression. ... He did not want that to happen and he took the actions he saw necessary to prevent it from happening."

On the other side, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a web video Thursday targeting vulnerable senators who are up for re-election in 2012 and voted for the measure. The spot shows Democratic senators, including Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, touting the bill. The video juxtaposes their comments with the unemployment rates in their respective states.

"Two years of liberal economics have failed America," the ad reads. "Happy anniversary."

In an e-mail, NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said the anniversary "seemed like an important point to look back on what they said then, versus the current economic situation their respective states are in today."

CNN's Tom Cohen and Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry contributed to this report.