By: - February 26, 2010 12:00 am

When President Obama hosted the nation’s governors at a dinner last week, he gave a toast that captured the difference between a chief executive — state or federal – and a member of Congress.

“It’s hard to be overly ideological as a governor,” Obama said, “because the fact of the matter is the rubber hits the road with you. You guys can have all kinds of abstract thoughts but when families come to you looking for help, when communities have been devastated, you’re the ones they turn to.”

This distinction helps explain why many Republican governors are not shy about criticizing their own party leaders on Capitol Hill for trashing Obama’s mammoth year-old economic stimulus plan and insisting it has failed to rescue the economy.

GOP governors in town for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association  joined Democrats in refuting congressional critics such as new Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who said the billion rescue package had not created a single job in his state.

“Anyone that says it hasn’t created a job, they should talk to the 150,000 people that have been getting jobs in California,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Obama was on target in his toast. Governors cannot be overly partisan when it comes to fiscal matters. Unlike Congress and the administration, both of which can print money when they are in debt, governors are required by law to balance budgets. Most of them say they do not know how they could have done that without the billion in federal stimulus money that has flowed to states so far.

“The federal government has provided states with invaluable assistance,” Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, the Republican chairman of the governor’s group, says of the stimulus package. “The stimulus helped stabilize the economy and minimize job losses.”

Proving that many governors are willing to look beyond partisan politics in a crisis, Douglas praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for helping governors find additional federal help. Pelosi is a bête noir of House Republicans and the conservative movement but Douglas doesn’t seem to mind insulting the right wing of his party.

Neither does Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who faces former state House Speaker Marco Rubio for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate this year. Rubio told a conference of conservatives in Washington that the stimulus was a mistake because it has not created many jobs. Crist, who has appeared with Obama to extol the stimulus’ impact on Florida, fired back at Rubio after leaving a White House meeting with the president.

 “It was the right thing to do. We needed the money. And it saved 87,000 jobs in my state,” Crist said. “I was raised to respect the presidency of the United States and the man who occupies the office. Now I don’t agree with him on everything. By golly if we agree on something and that means helping the people in the state that I was elected to govern, then I’m going to be there. I’m going to thank him.”

A GOP governor who wants Obama’s job, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, is not feeling so gracious. Pawlenty, like congressional Republicans, criticized the stimulus before it was approved, calling it a “meandering spending buffet.” If so, Minnesota filled its plate several times, using its stimulus money to hold down college tuition increases, pay for Medicaid health care for low income residents, extend unemployment benefits, finance a portion of public health and safety and launch road projects that the governor showed up to cut the ribbon on. The stimulus he calls “largely a waste of money” will help Pawlenty plug a .2 billion shortfall in the current two-year budget.

Pawlenty and the national GOP chairman, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, continue to insist that the stimulus has not created enough private sector jobs or provided much aid to small businesses. Most of the jobs that have been saved, they say, were in the public sector. They do not explain why they believe saving the paycheck of a teacher, police officer, correctional officer or custodian in the governor’s office is not a valuable outcome.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another Republican stimulus critic, left a White House meeting with Obama concluding that “what the country needs now is a laser like focus on jobs.” Jindal did not make reference to the president’s Jan. 27 State of the Union address , in which he proposed a jobs bill with additional small business tax cuts and further steps to ease access to credit. The U.S. Senate focused, laser like, on jobs last Wednesday by approving a billion job creation bill, with 13 Republicans joining the Democratic majority.

Obama’s detractors got one thing right. He has not succeeded in explaining the goals and impact of the stimulus very well despite solid evidence from bipartisan economists that it helped end the recession last fall. Only six percent of Americans believe the stimulus has created jobs, according to a Feb. 11 CBS News/New York Times poll . Forty one percent say that it will create jobs but 48 percent think it will not. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that the stimulus had created up to 2.1 million jobs.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, believes Republicans have been effective in beating up on the stimulus from the start. While it is true that the main goal was creating jobs, Rendell says, Obama should have focused more on how the money provided assistance to Americans who have lost their jobs.

“The Republicans aren’t going to raise their hands and vote against that, right?” Rendell said on ABC-TV’s This Week. “Everyone’s in favor of that. That was an important component of the stimulus – COBRA, health care benefits for people who lost their jobs… The stimulus has done a great job for America, but we lost the spin war. And once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back.” But with states facing two or more difficult budget years, it would help if there was less spin war and more comity.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.