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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to ask this morning what we're getting for $787 billion. That's how much the government committed to a stimulus plan. A fraction has been spent so far. And the question is how much it's helping the economy. A couple of numbers are at the center of the debate. President Obama's administration claims credit for creating a million jobs. Republicans ask why two-and-a-half million fewer Americans are working than when the stimulus took affect.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Of the one million stimulus jobs the Obama administration is bragging about, one belongs to Charlie Dilbert. The Ohio man introduced the president at a Labor Day picnic this week, calling himself, living proof that the stimulus measure is working.

Mr. CHARLIE DILBERT (A&A Safety): The company I work for, A&A Safety, out of Amelia, Ohio was awarded. We're putting up signs and doing other road construction work on highways and state routes. These projects are being directly funded by the stimulus package.

HORSLEY: Dilbert's boss, A&A President Bill Luttmer, agrees that stimulus road projects have been a boon for his company, which supplies orange traffic signs and the like. But Luttmer says those federal contracts are barely enough to backfill the potholes the recession has left in other parts of his sales and rental business.

Mr. BILL LATIMER (President, A&A Safety): You know, it's created opportunity on one hand, which has been wonderful. It's still a dollar more than was there before. But the challenge has been that it really is working to offset the loss in the sale and rental side.

HORSLEY: And that's the problem. The U.S. economy has been shedding jobs faster than the stimulus can grow new ones. Another 216,000 jobs disappeared last month alone. That's left the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of having to take credit for an economy that's not as bad as it used to be.

Ms. CHRISTINA ROMER (President's Council of Economic Advisors): I often quote the vice president, who says not as bad isn't good enough. And absolutely what we want is to get positive job creation. But certainly moderating job loss is a step along the way.

HORSLEY: Christina Romer, who heads the president's Council of Economic Advisors, argues the stimulus program put the breaks on a downward spiral in the economy. Many private economists agree things are turning around.

Mr. MARK ZANDI (Chief Economist, Moody's Economy.com): The economy is out of recession because of the stimulus.

HORSLEY: That's Mark Zandi of the forecasting firm Moody's Economy.com. He believes the U.S. economy has started growing again, largely because of the federal stimulus program. Zandi says without the stimulus, job losses might have topped three million.

Mr. ZANDI: So, we lost jobs. It's been a very, very tough economy. But the job losses would have been measurably greater, if not for the stimulus.

HORSLEY: About 20 percent of the stimulus money has been spent so far. But the unemployment rate continues to climb towards 10 percent. That's the highest it's been in more than a quarter century, and worse than forecast when the stimulus was being debated. So, here's the question: Were there more holes when we thought in the nation's economic flat tire, or is there something wrong with the pump? Greg Mankiw, who headed President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, says there are too many variables to say for sure.

Mr. GREGORY MANKIW (Former Head of Council of Economic Advisers): It's suddenly going to a doctor and saying, oh, the doctor has given the patient some medicine, and thinking how much sicker would this patient have been if he hadn't given this medicine?

HORSLEY: What's clear is that job losses are slowing. And White House forecaster Romer says she's confident before too long the nation will start adding jobs again.

Ms. ROMER: Believe me, no one's looking for it to at more than the president and every member of his administration because we know it's so important to the American people.

HORSLEY: It is also important to the president's own political fortunes. As Congressman Barney Frank recently observed, economic economists can have a field day theorizing how the recession might have played out. But no politician ever got reelected with the bumper stickers that said: It could have been worse.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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