President Barack Obama is juggling a glass-half-full take on the economy with a determination to not be seen as naive about problems still washing over the business landscape.
The president is slated to give an economic speech Tuesday at Georgetown University as his administration nears its symbolic 100-day mark. Aides billed the address as major but acknowledged that it was expected to contain no significant policy announcements.
Rather, they said, the speech would outline the state of the economy when Obama took office in January, steps his administration has taken in its first three months, and what still needs to be done to right troubled sectors, including the housing, banking and financial industries.
"The president wants the opportunity to update the American people on where we are, what we have to do going forward, and lay out the steps that are being taken to help our economy recover," said presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Hours before the speech, a cold dose of reality came in the form of a report saying retail sales fell unexpectedly in March, decreasing by 1.1 percent. That was the biggest decline in three months and a much weaker showing than the 0.3 percent increase that analysts expected. At the same time, wholesale prices dropped sharply last month as the cost of gasoline and other energy plummeted, fresh evidence that inflation appears to pose little threat to the economy.
Tuesday's indicators epitomized a continuing problem for government policymakers and ordinary people alike: How to figure out where the economy is headed amid such often contradictory business signals.
Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday that there have been flickering signs that the recession may be easing. The Fed chief mentioned improvements in recent data on home and auto sales, home building and consumer spending.
In remarks prepared for students and faculty at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bernanke said: "Recently we have seen tentative signs that the sharp decline in economic activity may be slowing."
Still, Bernanke made clear that any lasting recovery hinges on the government's success in stabilizing the shaky financial system and easing the availability of credit.
As the backsliding economy appears to be leveling off, the president and his White House have tried to recognize progress with optimistic language while also emphasizing tough tasks ahead in realistic tones.
Obama put his fledgling presidency on the line when he advocated sweeping new government intervention and spending to right the troubled economic conditions. Shortly after taking office he signed a $787 billion package intended to boost the economy.
With Tuesday's speech to students and faculty as well as labor, grassroots and political leaders, Obama essentially is trying to refocus the country on his economic agenda and domestic issues after two weeks that, both by design and circumstance, have been dominated by foreign affairs.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.