Obama tempers optimism with economy

President Barack Obama proclaimed signs of economic progress Tuesday but also warned Americans eager for good news that “by no means are we out of the woods.”

In a speech at Georgetown University, Obama aimed to juggle his glass-half-full take on the economy with a determination to not be stamped as naive or overly rosy in the face of stubborn problems that linger.

His latest remarks come as he nears the symbolic 100-day mark in office, important because that has become a traditional marker by which to judge new administrations.

“There is no doubt that times are still tough,” Obama said, according to excerpts of his speech released in advance by the White House. “But from where we stand,” he said, “for the very first time, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope. And beyond that, way off in the distance, we can see a vision of an America’s future that is far different than our troubled economic past.”

Obama’s message was enveloped in contradictory signals Tuesday about the economy’s health, but also buttressed by a contention by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the recession may be bottoming out.

Retail sales fell unexpectedly in March, decreasing by 1.1 percent. At the same time, wholesale prices dropped sharply as the cost of gasoline and other energy plummeted, fresh evidence that inflation appears to pose little threat to the economy.

In a speech prepared for students and faculty at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bernanke, like Obama, said there have been flickering signs of improvement, citing recent data on home and auto sales, home building and consumer spending.

But the broader message that a full turnaround might be a long time coming may not be welcome to a weary U.S. public.

Obama said a complete recovery depends on two things: building a new foundation for the U.S. economy and making changes in the political landscape. And he was avoiding any significant policy announcements, endeavoring instead to paint a broad picture of what his administration has already done to right the situation.

Obama said the rules governing the financial system must be brought into the Digital Age and that the economy must be transformed from one less dependent on a risk-obsessed financial sector and more on clean energy, good education and health care costs brought under control.

“We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said, invoking a Biblical reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest, where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.”

Obama also said the problem is exacerbated by politicians with an outsized interest in scoring points and an impatient media.

“When a crisis hits,” he said, “there’s all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died away and the media coverage has moved on, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way.”

“This can’t be one of those times,” Obama said.

With the university students and faculty as well as labor, grass roots and political leaders, Obama is trying to show he is focused on the economy after two weeks that, both by design and circumstance, have been dominated primarily by foreign affairs.

Obama put his fledgling presidency on the line when he advocated sweeping new government intervention and spending to right the troubled economic conditions. Shortly after taking office he signed a $787 billion package intended to boost the economy and his administration also has unveiled a slew of other programs aimed to right the troubled home, banking and auto sectors.

“Taken together, these actions are starting to generate signs of economic progress,” he said, citing canceled government-sector layoffs, new clean-energy industry hires, a spate of refinancings, and signs of increased credit flows.

But, the president said, “2009 will continue to be a difficult year.” He predicted more job losses, foreclosures, and gyrating stock markets.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.