President Obama took the stage Monday for an hour-long "town meeting" with voters on CNBC, but it was the voters who stole the show with pointed questions about the tepid recovery after the great recession.
"I'm exhausted," said one chief financial officer, who said she'd voted for the president but was worried about the future. "Is this my new reality?"
A recent law-school graduate asked about the lack of jobs: "I really want to know: Is the American Dream dead for me?"
The president tried to sound reassuring. He empathized with voters' frustrations, pointed to his administration's accomplishments, talked about the long term.
But a report released earlier Monday made it hard for Mr. Obama to sound too encouraging about the near term. The bang of the recession has been followed by a whimper of a recovery.
The good news: the great recession – the longest in postwar America – ended in June 2009, according to a panel of economists who date recessions. The bad news, evident in data that the economists highlighted: The ensuing recovery is the most tepid yet after such a steep recession.
Two-and-a-half years after the onset of the recession, the economy's output is still 1.3 percent below its peak (as measured by gross domestic product and adjusted for inflation). The only other comparable postwar stretch of economic stagnation was the early 1980s when GDP was down 0.7 percent after 2-1/2 years. Six months later, the economy was growing sharply.
Few economists forecast a sharp rebound this time. Even the panel of economists announcing the recession's end hedged their language in case the economy should turn down again.
"In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity," read the Monday statement from the panel officially known as the business cycle dating committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research. "The committee decided that any future downturn of the economy would be a new recession and not a continuation of the recession that began in December 2007."
As much as anything, the current agonizingly slow rebound has put the president – and Democrats in general – on the defensive.
"What I am saying is we're moving in the right direction," the president told the CNBC audience. He urged Americans to "stay a course that gets back to old-fashioned values."
But he acknowledged that many Americans are simply asking: "When do I get a job?"