- - Thursday, April 24, 2014

President Obama was eating sushi in Tokyo this week as housing and unemployment data back home revealed continued weakness in the U.S. economy.

The number of people buying new homes plunged last month to the slowest pace in eight months, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Sales fell by 14.5 percent — the second straight monthly decline.

Overall, new-home sales have fallen 13.3 percent over the past 12 months.

This followed more bad news Tuesday: Existing-home sales also dropped last month to the lowest level since July of 2012. It was further proof that the lackluster Obama economy will remain in a weakened condition for the rest of this year and, possibly, the rest of this administration.

“Our core view is that the housing market has stalled and won’t contribute” to overall economic growth for the rest of this year, said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist for Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Right now, economists are forecasting that the nation’s economy as measured by the gross national product barely grew by an annual rate of between 1 percent and 1.5 percent.

This embarrassingly sluggish pace is nothing to write home about, and certainly not the performance record that a U.S. president can boast about on a trip through some of the largest and most successful economies in the world.

Mr. Obama is on a seven-day, four-nation, good-will Asian tour that includes Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Its purpose is still unclear, though, unless it’s to get out of the country and avoid dealing with still more bad news on the economic front.

The president was hoping to put the finishing touches on a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has run into trouble with Democratic lawmakers and labor union bosses here at home. White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice said it’s going to require a great deal more work in the “coming weeks and months.”

When presidents have gone abroad, the trips that we remember were in pursuit of a larger, transforming goal in foreign policy or national security. John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin to declare U.S. solidarity in its struggle against communism. Ronald Reagan returned to Berlin to urge Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The wall eventually came down.

There is no similarly galvanizing goal in Mr. Obama’s trip, at least not yet. “He’s seeing the sights, getting some good pics and moving along — more tourist than architect of world affairs,” writes analyst Dana Milbank of The Washington Post.

What’s the trip’s purpose? “Unclear,” Mr. Milbank says. This was how Miss Rice, well practiced in the art of diplomatic gobbledygook, described the trip in a press briefing:

“So, this is a positive trip with a positive agenda that underscores that the United States’ commitment to this region is growing, and is a cornerstone of our global engagement and is going to be there for the long term,” she said. Come again?

Presidents who succeed in driving their foreign policies — especially trade-expansion policies — are usually those who have succeeded on the home front. Mr. Obama has no such claim to make, most especially on the economy.

Reagan, for example, inherited a deep recession that was in many ways worse than Mr. Obama’s. As a result of his tax cuts and other policies, the economy came soaring back in the third year of his presidency, scoring economic growth rates of between 7 percent and nearly 8 percent, and creating hundreds of thousands job a month.

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