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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It was a year ago today that President Obama sat down at a borrowed desk in a Denver museum and signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It was a massive government stimulus program designed to jump-start the ailing economy. A year later, the economy is working again, but millions of Americans are not. The mixed track record of the stimulus has shaken confidence in the administration, even as the president pushes for more measures to add jobs.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The economic stimulus was the first big challenge of the Obama administration, and its first big achievement. Even before Mr. Obama was sworn in, he was urging lawmakers to act swiftly and boldly, opening the government's checkbook to fill a gaping economic hole. The president signed the $787 billion measure just four weeks after taking office.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems, nor does it constitute all of what we're going to have to do to turn our economy around. But today, it does mark the beginning of the end -the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs.

HORSLEY: In a phrase that foreshadowed the ambiguity of stimulus results, the president said the measure would create or save some three-and-a-half million jobs over the next two years.

Pres. OBAMA: And we expect you, the American people, to hold us accountable for the results.

HORSLEY: Both the White House and the Congressional Budget Office say so far, thanks to the stimulus, something like two million people are working who otherwise wouldn't be. But that's like trying to climb up a down escalator. Unemployment still topped 10 percent last year. And there are some three million fewer people working now than when the president raised his stimulus pen. On the other hand, the economy, which had been shrinking at a rapid rate, is growing again, and monthly job losses have slowed to a trickle. Christina Romer, who chairs the president's Council of Economic Advisors, says the stimulus deserves credit for arresting the economic freefall.

Ms. CHRISTINA ROMER (Chairwoman, President's Council of Economic Advisors): Remember back to what it was like a year ago, when we were losing almost 800,000 jobs a month, when we were seeing GDP plummeting rather than rising, as it has for the last two quarters.

HORSLEY: Private economists largely agree the stimulus has helped to cushion the recession's blow, but the general public is not convinced. And Republican lawmakers, who almost unanimously opposed the stimulus, happily encourage those doubts. A poll by the Pew Research Center found more people think Mr. Obama's policies have worsened the economy than made it better. One explanation for this underwhelming appraisal is that the stimulus just wasn't big enough to combat a recession that so far has claimed nearly eight-and-a-half million jobs. Romer reportedly believed a year ago that a bigger stimulus was needed, but she says the White House took what Congress would allow.

Ms. ROMER: I think we did what we could, and it was very effective. I think what the president is talking about now is we need to do more, because he does think the American people deserve that.

HORSLEY: Politics drove not only the size of the stimulus, but also its shape, with a heavy reliance on tax cuts, even though direct government spending is generally thought to deliver more economic bang for the buck.

Pres. OBAMA: About a third of this package comes in the forms of tax cuts - by the way, the most progressive in our history...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: ...not only spurring job creation, but putting money in the pockets of 95 percent of hardworking families in America.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: But 95 percent American families don't think they got a tax cut. In fact, according to a new CBS poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe Mr. Obama cut their taxes. Instead of going out in a highly visible, lump-sum check, this cut simply left a little more money in workers' paychecks. Behavioral economists say that's the best way to encourage people to spend their stimulus rather than stashing it away. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs admits any political payoff was lost.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): Would I have liked to hire somebody to knock on everyone's door, you know, like the Publishers Clearing House guys and the big check in the balloons and the TV cameras? Sure. Maybe it would have had a greater effect.

HORSLEY: The administration is still paying a price for its marketing missteps. Rightly or wrongly, the president's first big initiative is widely seen as missing the mark, and that perception has made everything Mr. Obama tried to do since the stimulus that much harder.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

MONTAGNE: You can see snapshots of the stimulus and how it's affected people across America at npr.org.

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