The government’s report Friday on economic growth only deepened that muddle. It showed that the recovery gained momentum between July and September, but the rate of expansion remained slightly behind last year’s sluggish pace.
Political analysts are skeptical that the modest improvement will help Obama’s reelection prospects, with early voting already launched in many states and opinions of the candidates hardened. Even a substantial improvement in next week’s report on employment in October — the last snapshot of the economy before the Nov. 6 presidential election — may have little impact on voters.
“There is not much time left,” said Michael D. Ward, a Duke University political scientist. The government’s report “is an improvement. But people who are still unemployed won’t necessarily be moved by this, even if many people will think of this as a positive rather than a negative.”
The Commerce Department estimated that gross domestic product expanded at a 2 percent annual rate in the third quarter, a clear improvement over the
1.3 percent rate achieved in the previous three months. But growth remains too slow to substantially reduce the nation’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate.
The report parallels other data that show a still-weak but improving housing market and a labor market where unemployment remains high despite recent gains.
Aides to Obama noted that the GDP report marks more than three years of steady growth, which they called proof that the economy continues to strengthen.
“While we have more work to do, together with other economic indicators this report provides further evidence that the economy is moving in the right direction,” said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Romney pointed out Friday that economic growth has stagnated over the past year. The
1.74 percent annual growth rate for the first nine months of 2012 slightly lags 2011’s tepid 1.8 percent growth rate.
“Today, we received the latest round of discouraging economic news: Last quarter, our economy grew at only 2 percent, less than half the 4.3 percent rate the White House projected after passing the stimulus bill,” Romney said in a statement. “Slow economic growth means slow job growth and declining take-home pay. This is what four years of President Obama’s policies have produced.”
GDP is the broadest measure of economic activity and aims to capture the value of all goods and services produced within the United States. Over time, changes in economic output determine whether the nation is becoming wealthier or poorer.
The new numbers offer a portrait of an American economy in transition, with some sectors showing newfound strength while others are fading.
Growth in the third quarter was driven largely by an increase in consumer spending, which increased at a 2 percent annual rate, up from 1.5 percent last spring. There were also strong gains in spending on automobiles, video and audio equipment, recreational vehicles and other durable goods.