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The stimulus package is not only a political crucible for Obama and the congressional Democrats who pushed it through; it is also the ultimate test of government’s ability to deliver, from a vast array of federal agencies and departments down to state and local offices across the country.

It will be up to thousands of Cabinet undersecretaries, regional agency directors and local contracting officers to get the stimulus money out fast enough to boost the economy and to meet Obama’s broader policy goals. Obama has cast his election as a repudiation of an anti-government philosophy that has been in vogue for the past three decades. The stimulus spending offers the prospect of renewing confidence in the public sector just as many are losing faith in corporate America. If done poorly, though, it could undermine Obama’s longer-term vision of reaffirming the positive role of government in the lives of Americans.

“This is an historic opportunity for federal managers to rise to the occasion, to stand up and make sure these dollars are spent well,” said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. “It’s an historic shot, but it’s a tough shot. It may be an exaggeration to say they’ve been set up to fail, but the expectations are very high.”