The economy's dismal performance appears to be overtaking President Obama's symbolic efforts to address it. Latest indications are that the economy did not catch cold -- it caught the flu -- with reports showing it shrank in 2012's last quarter and unemployment rose in 2013's first month. This offers perhaps the best glimpse that the administration is losing its control of the optics on America's most important problem.
The president's economic team has assuredly had worse days, but it is hard to remember three in a row like it recently had.
The first dose of bad news came two weeks ago, when it was announced that real gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 0.1 percent in 2012's fourth quarter. While America has had slow growth, it hasn't had negative growth since the second quarter of 2009.
Amazingly, for an administration as focused on symbolism as Mr. Obama's is, this substantive hit was followed by a stylistic faux pas: its announcement the next day that the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness was closing shop. Considering it had not met since February 2012, you would think its shuttering could have been rescheduled for a less conspicuous time.
Feb. 1 completed the weak economic performance's triple whammy. Job growth was again tepid -- a below-expectation 157,000 -- the unemployment rate increased to 7.9 percent, and labor force participation remained flat (63.6 percent) -- where it roughly has been for a year.
Once again, the administration followed substantive bad news by losing style points. Commenting on the jobs report, it stated: "While more work remains to be done, today's employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal ."
Really? Shrinking GDP and an increasing unemployment rate is evidence the nation is "continuing to heal"? Most consider "healing" to mean getting better, not worse. This begs the question: Exactly what would getting worse look like?
Just as the economic patient's chart belies its doctor's diagnosis, the medical staff appeared to be packing golf bags for vacation. This had all the bedside manner of: "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning."
The administration has had its work cut out for it over the last four years just convincing Americans the economy is improving at all. With 2012's economic growth now in the books, the Obama economy has performed as follows: 2.2 percent real growth in 2012, 1.8 percent in 2011, 2.4 percent in 2010 and minus 3.1 percent in 2009. Combined, these growth figures would barely constitute a single good year.
While the economy is certainly not dead, "breathing" must not be mistaken for "recovering," either. It remains bedridden.
All this makes it even stranger that the administration would seem so unfocused on it in the first place. A blase spirit toward the economy was quite clear in the president's inaugural address. Less than two weeks before this latest spate of bad news, Mr. Obama barely mentioned the economy in his second-term vision. Despite ample time for numerous social causes, there was scarcely a word about the nation's continuing cause for concern.
The pivot in this week's State of the Union from cavalier to concerned could not have been more obvious -- or more needed. Without it, he risked looking detached.
Certainly, the administration's symbolic efforts toward the economy over the last four years have not produced the substantive results desired. However, there is a growing perception the administration's intended symbolic efforts to address the economy have not only run their course, but are beginning to run amok. Shutting down a jobs initiative just as the economy is shrinking and the unemployment rate is rising, then issuing a news release proclaiming continued recovery, is a troubling reaction to our economic woes.
Yet, Mr. Obama has an even bigger and more serious symbolic problem. As the economy continues to stumble and memories of George W. Bush fade, the president increasingly risks the prospect that he -- rather than Mr. Bush -- will be associated with economic failure.
Mr. Obama's biggest fear should be that as Americans look back, they will remember a president who was not preoccupied with the economy. They might come to believe that he considered the economy too pedestrian a concern for a man born to make history. They might conclude that filling pocketbooks and balancing checkbooks, if on his to-do list at all, was only there begrudgingly and not due to genuine concern.
Mr. Obama begins his second term with less political capital than he would like -- and far less than he realizes. While he may think he's the master of his message, his unrealistic response to economic indicators could convince Americans that he is inattentive to the struggles they face.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.