West Wing Briefing

What chilled the U.S. economy? An ill 'headwind' from Europe, says Obama

Official behind-the-scenes photos from the White House Flickr.com account from July 2010.
By Michael D. Shear
Friday, August 13, 2010; 9:06 AM

As he searches for ways to explain the slow pace of the economic recovery to the American people, President Obama is beginning to point more often to a specific culprit: Europe.

In the White House narrative, the economic recovery it predicted upon taking office was well on its way -- until about April, when the debt crisis overseas slammed on the brakes.

When Obama spoke Wednesday in the East Room about American manufacturing, he placed the inflection point at "last spring," when he said "events in Europe roiled the markets and created headwinds for our economic recovery."

Earlier this summer, after meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Obama hailed "very positive trends in a number of sectors," but he expressed concern about the impact of Europe's recent economic misfortune.

"Unfortunately, because of the troubles that we've seen in Europe, we're now seeing some headwinds and some skittishness and nervousness on the part of the markets and on part of business and investors," the president said.

In his most recent briefing for reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs put it plainly: "The trajectory of where we were in April is different than where we are right now, and certainly Europe was one of the first signs of that."

Economic data suggests that the administration is right on the substance: Exports, which had been growing, contracted in June, adding to the nation's trade imbalance. That has hurt U.S. manufacturers and is slowing job growth.

"It's a headwind," said University of California economics professor J. Bradford DeLong. "It's a legitimate thing to point at. How big? I don't think we really know."

Meanwhile, the president and his Democratic allies are anxious to find an answer for the demand of voters: Why aren't things better?

In this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 44 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the job Obama is doing in handling the economy. (That's still more than twice as good as the approval rate for Congress, which was at 21 percent.)

Republicans have been hammering the president for the prediction his economists made in early 2009, that unemployment would reach a high of about 8 percent if his stimulus legislation was passed. The bill did pass, and it turned out that unemployment peaked at just over 10 percent.

At the beginning of the year, it looked like that missed projection wouldn't matter much politically as job growth seemed to be picking up. But private companies have all but frozen their hiring again, making a presidential explanation an imperative.

Will the blame-Europe theme become a key part of the economic message in this fall's midterm campaigns? In part, officials say, that will depend on the economic data that emerges during the next several months.

If jobs numbers at the end of September and October show a marked improvement, the Europe narrative would become less urgent. But few signs point to a quick turnaround like that.

And pointing at Europe has the benefit of doing two things at once: explaining the slow pace of recovery, and acknowledging voters' frustration about how much remains to be done.

"While we have fought back from the worst of this recession, we've still got a lot of work to do," Obama said Wednesday. "We've still got a long way to go. And I'm more determined than ever to do every single thing we can to hasten our economic recovery and get our people back to work."

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