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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

How do you prove a negative? Is there really evidence in absence? It's probably a question best put to a philosopher, but it's one that's dogged President Obama for the past few months: How did the stimulus help the economy?

It's a question one voter asked him at a town hall meeting this past week.

President BARACK OBAMA: It worked in terms of helping to cushion the fall. But we went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, something that didn't happen on my watch, although we have managed it in a way that prevented a second Great Depression.

RAZ: Now, there are many economists who agree, who say that without the stimulus, the economy would be in far worse shape. But that's probably small comfort to the nearly 15 million Americans without a job. So what to do?

Well, it's a question we've been asking economists on this program for the past few weeks. Some say we need another stimulus package. Others say we need to focus on the deficit.

We'll hear from two more in a few minutes: historian Niall Ferguson and economist Nouriel Roubini. But first to this report by NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Nearly one in 10 Americans is out of work. The fraction who are out of patience is even higher. President Obama is hearing from frustrated jobseekers nearly everywhere he goes. He heard from Adam Hunter this past week at a town hall meeting sponsored by MTV and BET.

Mr. ADAM HUNTER: There was a bailout that you supported. There was stimulus that added to our deficit. But yet it seems as though our unemployment rate still rises. Now we have young people who are trying to find work. But it's hard.

HORSLEY: And young people aren't the only ones worried. At a backyard meeting in Iowa last month, Mr. Obama talked about the letters he gets from people who are too young to retire but feel too old to start over.

President OBAMA: A bunch of those letters talk about, I'm 50 years old. I've worked hard all my life. You know, I've looked after my family. The plant closed, or, you know, the office shut down, and it's very hard for me now to find work.

HORSLEY: And that's not likely to change soon. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported an unexpected increase in first-time claims for unemployment.

Private employers are hiring. In fact, they're hiring faster than they did after the last recession. But economist Robert Dye of PNC Financial Services says so many people were laid off during this downturn that recovery will be measured in years, not months.

Mr. ROBERT DYE (Senior Economist, PNC Financial Services): And it's not going to come fast enough for anyone. It's going to be slow movements, hopefully in the right direction. And, you know, we're going to be talking about the lingering after-effects of the Great Recession for years to come.

HORSLEY: Congressional candidates have been talking a lot about jobs, but even when Congress was in session, lawmakers were not doing very much. That's left it up to the Federal Reserve to try to goose the economy with the limited tools it has left.

After passing the big stimulus package of tax cuts and government spending last year only to see unemployment keep rising, Congress has grown wary of additional measures that would add to the near-record deficit.

Only after months of debate did lawmakers finally approve additional aid to states, extended unemployment benefits and a bundle of measures designed to help small businesses. Even an extension of most Bush-era tax cuts has been held up by partisan wrangling over the top 2 percent.

This past week, President Obama renewed his call for spending $50 billion to improve roadways and airports. He says the plan, which he first raised on Labor Day, would create jobs for construction workers, nearly one in five of whom is unemployed.

President OBAMA: This is work that needs to be done. There are workers who are ready to do it. All we need is the political will.

HORSLEY: With nervous lawmakers, especially Democrats, worried about their own jobs, political will is in short supply.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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