The Obama administration's "summer of recovery" has morphed into a summer of economic discontent amid anxiety over the weakening economy. The greater than 4% growth and less than 8% unemployment envisioned by the president's economic team are nowhere to be seen. Almost everything that is supposed to be up—the economic growth rate, the stock market, bond yields—is down. And almost everything that is supposed to be down—unemployment-insurance claims, new mortgage delinquencies—is up.
Sometimes a weak early recovery gathers strength after a year or so, as in 2003 when the second round of the Bush tax cuts helped double growth to 3.8% from 1.9%. But there are serious headwinds to stronger growth: household deleveraging, unresolved toxic assets, and most government economic policies headed in the wrong direction. While the base case outlook is still slow recovery, a double-dip recession or a Japanese-style lost decade is more plausible than a few months ago. This explains why Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke felt compelled last week to reiterate that the Fed will use more of its (in my view, weak) ammunition should the economy falter further.