It was only four years ago that President Barack Obama signed an emergency bill on this date to add $2 billion to the Cash for Clunkers program, a government incentive to trade in gas guzzlers for new, more efficient models with rebates up to $4,500. Federal planners had expected the program's original $1 billion budget to last at least five months, but auto dealers sold 250,000 cars in one month. The additional $2 billion only lasted three weeks. Looking back, the question remains: Was it worth it?
I have a personal connection to this bit of history. As the Washington auto reporter for the Detroit Free Press, this story took over my life for a few months, and watching Congress move with lightening speed when faced with an uproar over the program was a civics lesson I'll never forget. In its aftermath, reviewers who analyzed the program say it did raise the fuel economy of vehicles on the road, retired inefficient models and boosted the economy by up to $7 billion. There's plenty of accurate criticism that Cash for Clunkers could have boosted fuel efficiency even further, but its standing as the most successful government program of its kind won't be challenged soon.