Spring Slowdown: Is the U.S. Economic Recovery Stalling?

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Eddie Seal / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Job seekers wait for the opening of the Job USA fair in Robstown, Texas.

The disappointing economic growth figures released Friday by the federal government have raised the possibility that the U.S. recovery might be stalling — just when it appeared poised to achieve “escape velocity,” in which gains would become self-reinforcing. For the White House, the report was no doubt a wake-up call, because if there’s one thing most experts agree could doom President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, it’s the perception that Obama’s policies have not done enough to spur a robust recovery from the worst recession in 80 years.

First-quarter gross domestic product — the most basic measure of national economic performance — grew at a lackluster rate of 2.2%, the Commerce Department said Friday, down from last quarter’s 3% rate, and below most economic forecasts of 2.5%. Growth was weighed down by a decrease in business spending and government investment, an ominous sign just when the economy needs more spending, not less, in order to keep growing.

The mediocre rate of recovery has prompted some economists, most notably Princeton professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to accuse Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke of not doing enough to help spur the economy. But after two stimulus rounds that have boosted the Fed’s balance sheet to nearly $3 trillion, it’s simply not clear if the central bank has the political appetite for a third. Bernanke’s Fed prides itself on being politically independent, and in an election year, another round of stimulus could be attacked as an effort to goose the economy — and further risk inflation — to support Obama’s chances.

If there was one silver lining to the GDP report, it’s that consumer spending increased by 2.9% — the fastest rate in over a year — but even that figure came with caveats. Warmer weather most likely boosted that figure, as did the fact that Americans are saving less, 3.9% of after-tax income, a sharp decrease from 4.5% one year earlier. And with after-tax income rising at just 0.6% — the lowest rate in two years — it’s not clear how long the increasing pace of consumer spending can continue.

(More: U.S. Growth Slowed to 2.2% in First Quarter)

The bottom line is that the already-tepid economic recovery risks stalling out, especially if external factors, like rising global oil prices or Europe’s ongoing economic crisis, worsen. “We’re still very, very susceptible to shocks at this point and there are still plenty of shocks that could occur out there,” Jay Bryson, an economist with Wells Fargo Securities, told The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking Friday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried to emphasize the positive consumer spending figures, but acknowledged that the economy is still facing a long, hard climb back from the recession. “This report illustrates something that the President has long understood, which is that there’s quite a bit more work to do,” Earnest said. “Both in terms of the putting in place policies that will help the private sector create jobs, but also ensure that we have policies in place that will benefit middle-class families and those families trying to get into the middle class.”

The disappointing growth numbers come on the heels on another dispiriting economic report. Last month, the economy added only 120,000 jobs, according to the Labor Dept., compared to the 205,000 that many analysts had been expecting, in a sign that the employment gains of recent months could be tapering off. And despite a drop in the unemployment rate, which fell to a three-year low of 8.2%, that figure is not as good as it sounds, thanks to a reduction in the number of Americans seeking work.

(More: U.S. Economy Added Only 120,000 Jobs in March, Missing Estimates)

Taken together, the recent soft economic numbers could strengthen calls for another round of Federal Reserve stimulus. Stocks climbed slightly on Friday despite the weak report, suggesting that many on Wall Street believe the central bank could launch another round of bond buying — aka QE3 (quantitative easing) — despite the fact that Fed policy makers seem to be hinting that the government’s monetary stimulus measures might be over. There seems to be a sense among some on Wall Street that Bernanke will step in if the economy remains soft, but he faces an increasingly vocal contingent among his regional Fed bank presidents concerned about the risks of inflation.

This puts both the White House and the Fed in a tricky position, one in which they may have exhausted the policy tools at their disposal to help spur the recovery. Large scale economic stimulus has become politically unattractive, to say the least, and after two big rounds of bond-buying, the Fed may not have the appetite for a third. In some ways, policy-makers appear frozen by the mediocre rate of the recovery: Things haven’t gotten overwhelmingly bad to enough to spur them to another round of aggressive action.

Still, it could be worse: The U.S. economy appears healthier than many European countries, including Britain, which has officially fallen into a double-dip recession. “Growth is an increasingly rare commodity in the global economy,” Jason Conibear of Cambridge Mercantile, which specializes in trading currencies, told the AP. “But the U.S. has got it.”

But that may be little consolation for the millions who remain out of work or have seen their pocket-book stretched thin. The key question over the next several months is whether the economy can start growing quickly enough to make Americans feel confident that President Obama deserves a second term in office. Judging by current economic trend lines, it looks like it will be a very close call.

MORE: America’s Slow Economic Recovery