- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2012

Just when the American economy was looking like a global bright spot, a spate of bad news last week showed that the U.S. also has succumbed to a major slowdown — sending President Obama and his team scrambling to explain Friday’s disappointing unemployment numbers.

“Nobody is happy with the rate of job creation today,” Steven Rattner, Mr. Obama’s former car czar, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Obviously, the numbers this month were disappointing,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior campaign strategist, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The economy, the president acknowledged after Friday’s Labor Department report, is “not growing as fast as we want it to grow.”

The news that job growth in May shrank to an anemic 69,000 is the latest evidence of a slowdown that economists blame on three key obstacles to global recovery: the spike in global oil prices, the European debt crisis and the looming possibility of a long-term debt deal stalemate in Washington.

Those threats once again prompted businesses to pull back hiring in the spring, as they did last year, economists said.

Executives apparently feared that consumers would fold under the weight of pump prices around $4 a gallon on average in April, though they have fallen back since then. Meanwhile, they worried that demand for U.S. products overseas will be quashed by a recession in Europe and major slowdown in China, Brazil and elsewhere in the developing world.

Swift reaction

In Washington, Republican critics of Mr. Obama pounced on the disappointing numbers.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a Mitt Romney campaign adviser, said the president lacks the private business experience necessary to lead the U.S. economy.

“We gave the keys to the largest economy in the world to a person that did not have any previous executive experience,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to the Romney campaign, told “Fox News Sunday” that job creators are getting “hammered” under Mr. Obama.

“This administration, the policies are hostile to job growth,” Mr. Gillespie said. “The only thing that’s going to change it is changing the policies, and that means changing the person in the White House.”

But economists said there’s more than politics at play.

“The U.S. economy can’t entirely remain an island in a sea of troubles,” said Cliff Walden, senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

That realization sent markets plummeting from New York to Beijing on Friday, with the Dow Jones industrial average wiping out its gains for the year and closing down 275 points or 2.2 percent.

“It’s an unwelcome truth,” said Yuki Sakasai, an economist at Barclays Capital. “Even the U.S., where growth has been modest and manufacturing sentiment firm relative to the euro area and China, may not be immune to the global slowdown.”

The news of slower growth in the U.S. “could not have come at a worse time for markets,” which already had been “grappling with the uncertain European political environment,” he said, and were counting on an island of stability in the U.S.

Bad news catches up

The U.S. for weeks had seemed to be sitting out the global turmoil, basking in the benefit of rock-bottom interest rates and enjoying the relief from high gas prices caused by the collapse in global oil prices. Consumers seemed to be getting a bit of a boost from having extra change in their pockets after they left the service station.

But one report last week — an unexpected fall in consumer confidence reported by the Conference Board — suggested that consumers were not as immune as thought to the gathering gloom.

After that, Friday’s jobs report pulled the rug out from any remaining faith in the U.S. economy as Fortress America.

Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said some of the softness in hiring — particularly the loss of construction jobs in May — was a payback from unusually robust job growth during the winter. But the weakness was widespread enough that it showed businesses are still not convinced of a lasting recovery, he said.

“Given the uncertainties over the eurozone crisis, emerging market growth, the U.S. elections and the ‘fiscal cliff’ [of expiring tax provisions and spending measures at the end of the year], there are plenty of reasons for businesses to stay cautious in their hiring plans, even if surging gasoline prices are for the moment no longer on the list of things to worry about,” he said.

Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also attributed the slowdown to powerful recessionary forces coming from overseas.

“Just like last year at this time, our economy is facing serious headwinds, including the crisis in Europe and a spike in gas prices,” he said. “The economy is growing, but it is not growing fast enough” to make much headway in reducing unemployment among millions of Americans.

More dark clouds loom

While the threat from high gas prices is now waning, the turmoil in Europe promises to get only worse in coming weeks as Greek voters consider once again on June 17 whether to stay in the eurozone or leave it, and Spain grapples with a banking crisis that could force it to seek a bailout from its northern neighbors, following the path of Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

Meanwhile, businesses in the U.S. have been roiled by rumblings of another major confrontation like last year’s debt limit battle between Mr. Obama and the Republican-led House of Representatives.

A second partisan war is looming at the end of the year over the expiration of all of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and big, across-the-board spending cuts that are set to take effect in defense and other government programs unless the two branches can agree on a budget deal.

Economists from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke on down have warned that the fiscal crunch scheduled for Jan. 1 is so large that it would plunge the U.S. economy back into recession.

Mr. Bernanke has said the Fed would be unable to do anything to prevent such a recession if Congress fails to stop the fiscal train wreck. Yet few expect Congress to take any action until after the November elections.

Fear over how the political drama will play out — compounded by not knowing who will be the newly elected president at the end of the year — has paralyzed planning at some American businesses. Many economists cite the possibility of draconian tax increases and spending cuts as the biggest obstacle to growth and business investment at present.

“Risks from Europe and the fiscal cliff have increasingly impacted business spending,” and likely will hold down growth for the rest of the year, said Vincent Reinhart, an economist at Morgan Stanley.