Putting the Heart into Economic Stimulus

02/12/2009 12:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At a town hall event this week in Fort Myers, Florida, President Obama took an important step down the road to economic recovery. No, it wasn't a policy proposal that he made, or a thoughtful answer to a citizen's question, or even the announcement that his stimulus package had passed in the Senate. It was when he climbed down from the speaker's platform to comfort Henrietta Hughes.

After telling the president that she was "praying for him," Hughes explained that she and her son were living in their small car, moving around the county each night and using showers in the parks. "I am in urgent need now. Please help," she pleaded. Obama's response was swift and appropriate - he climbed down from his high perch to give her a hug.

While it is easy to be cynical about emotional gestures by politicians, Obama's spontaneous expression of concern should be a wakeup call to those on all sides of the debate over the economic stimulus package. As we argue over too much or too little money, too soon or too late, there is a tidal wave of suffering that is building daily in our nation and will very shortly be crashing down upon us.

The human suffering is not about securities derivatives, or bad banks, or Keynesian economics. It is about our cousin who works in construction, or our friend from high school who sells insurance, or our nephew who is in college. It is about our neighbors who are facing foreclosure but are ashamed to tell us, our co-worker who has just been laid off, our barber with a sick child. It is our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our parents and grandparents, our children.

As the President has said, "We've had a good debate, now it is time to act." Of course, it is important to embrace bipartisanship, to be fiscally responsible, to punish wrongdoers and not to reward moral laxity. But if we meet a man walking down a road, already thin and gaunt from hunger, do we ask whether he needs 1,000 calories to survive instead of 1,500? Do we speculate whether he might live another week or so without food before we feed him? No. We give him food. Now.

Amidst all the wrangling over the policy intricacies of economic stimulus, something very important is getting lost in the debate -- our hearts. We are confronted not only with the prospect of suffering, but its reality. Food banks are being swamped with new clients, many of whom are there for the first time. These are not anybodies. They are our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our grandparents, our children. They are Henrietta Hughes and so many more like her.

We should all understand that there is no choice other than acting quickly to stimulate the economy. The stakes are higher than any we have known in most of our lifetimes. Whether it is $800 billion or a trillion doesn't really matter. What matters is that we take action. If Americans understand the choice they are facing - to feed a starving man rather than debate how many calories he needs or how much longer he can go without food - they will make the right choice. And Americans will also come to understand that it was wrong to waste too much valuable time quibbling about calories or timing, especially if the starving man dies.