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FACT CHECK: Trump's Claim That The 2009 Stimulus Built Nothing

Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood deliver remarks highlighting the transportation projects and infrastructure jobs created by Obama's economic stimulus plan in 2009.
Michael Reynolds/Pool
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Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood deliver remarks highlighting the transportation projects and infrastructure jobs created by Obama's economic stimulus plan in 2009.

Speaking to CEOs on Tuesday, President Trump touted his plans for deregulation and infrastructure-building. In the process, he made a striking claim: that the Obama administration passed an infrastructure bill that built nothing and gave money to social programs.

You may not remember that happening (because it didn't). Here's what Trump seems to have been saying and how close to the truth it is.

The Claim: "There was a very large infrastructure bill that was approved during the Obama administration, $1 trillion, and nobody ever saw anything being built. To this day I haven't heard of anything that's been built. They took this money and used it on social programs."

Short Answer: He's mostly wrong here. It wasn't an "infrastructure bill," and plenty was built. However, some money was spent on social programs.

Long Answer:

There was no $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed during Obama's presidency. The closest thing was the stimulus, though — which cost around $800 billion and which proponents often touted as boosting infrastructure. That bill was quickly cobbled together in the face of economic crisis; at the time, unemployment in the U.S. was around 8 percent and still rising. This stimulus package appears to be what Trump was referring to.

So given that, let's take Trump's two claims one by one. First, there's "nobody ever saw anything being built. To this day I haven't heard of anything that's been built."

This is easy enough to fact-check — at least, the first part is. It's not at all true that "nobody ever saw anything being built." Stimulus projects were often well-advertised, with construction areas marked by large signs proclaiming that those sites were funded by the stimulus.

In fact, opponents of the stimulus often criticized the government for spending on those signs.

But those projects did happen. In fact, the Transportation Department's website still carries a rundown of stimulus projects, saying that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act "initiated more than 13,000 projects through the Federal Highway Administration, improving more than 42,000 miles of road and more than 2,700 bridges." (Emphasis theirs.)

Many opponents of the stimulus did criticize its efficiency, pointing out that many of the infrastructure projects it promised weren't "shovel ready." And that's true, as investigative journalist Michael Grabell told NPR's Fresh Air in 2012.

"There was this famous scene ... in Tuscumbia, Mo., where the minute the stimulus package is signed there's a makeshift board meeting, they bang the gavel and sparks fly on this Depression-era rusty truss bridge. But a lot of projects were not like that," he said. "A lot of projects took six months to a year to get off the ground."

But once again: there were some delays, but definitely projects.

We can't possibly fact-check whether Trump never heard of any stimulus projects, so we'll have to leave that one a mystery.

As far as social programs, Trump is correct here that there was some spending — a substantial portion of the stimulus went to this category of spending: $40 billion went to unemployment insurance, along with $25 billion to COBRA health coverage and $20.9 billion to SNAP (sometimes referred to as food stamps), according to The New York Times' rundown of stimulus spending, and there were plenty of other, smaller "social programs" as well.

But there was plenty of other spending in the bill: more than $200 billion in tax cuts for individuals, for example, and more than $120 billion in education and job training-related programs, according to the Times' tally. There were also $48 billion in transportation projects, along with another $32 billion in other infrastructure projects.

That's not a huge amount spent on infrastructure, which may be why Trump seems to believe that no building happened.

But then again, Trump knew at some point that this bill was about economic stimulus, rather than just road- and bridge-building, because back in 2009 he applauded the stimulus for taking a multiple-pronged approach to boosting the economy.

"Well, I think taxes are very good. I think it goes quickly. It is easily done, and etc., etc.," Trump said, as reported by Buzzfeed. "But building infrastructure, building great projects, putting people to work in that sense is also very good, so I think you have a combination of both, plus he is doing a rebate system, and I think that is good also."

Further reading:

  • Fresh Air's 2012 interview with Michael Grabell, author of Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind The Trillion-dollar Stimulus, The Biggest Economic Recovery Plan In History
  • The CBO's February 2015 report on the stimulus' impacts on employment and the broader economy
  • Politifact's fact check from last year of a similar claim from Fox News' Eric Bolling
  • The New York Times' full rundown of stimulus spending
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.

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