While President Obama was touring the capitals of Latin America this past week, Americans were being battered by one bad economic report after another.
The worst were in the housing industry, which is rapidly sinking into what economic analysts call a "double-dip recession," as home prices continue to plunge, mortgage foreclosures continue to rise and the home-building industry plummets into recession levels that haven't been seen in more than half a century.
A Commerce Department report released Wednesday said that sales of new homes fell by a jaw-dropping 16.9 percent in February. That followed an alarming report from the National Association of Realtors on Monday that said existing home prices had plummeted again in every region of the country and were now down by an average of one-third since the recession started.
Then came last week's Commerce Department report that new housing construction had nose-dived last month by 22.5 percent, the worst monthly decline since 1984. Meantime, new-home construction permits have dropped to their lowest level since the government started tracking them in 1960.
"Within the space of a week, the nation has witnessed the worst performances on record of new-home sales, home prices and building -- evidence that the housing market has sunk into a double-dip recession that poses a significant drag on the overall economy," writes economics reporter Patrice Hill in Thursday's Washington Times.
The housing industry is a pivotal part of our overall economy, and it's hard to see the rest of the economy expanding at a healthy rate when housing remains in a recession, threatening future growth.
Huge home-price declines of up to 60 percent in some regions of the country "increase the likelihood that more people will end up defaulting on mortgages that are worth far more than the homes they finance and that homeowners can afford to pay," Hill writes.
Peter Schiff, CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, predicts that home prices will drop by another 20 percent on average, triggering a wave of new defaults that could lead to "another, deeper financial crisis."
But these dismal housing statistics are not the only numbers that suggest the Obama administration's economic policies -- if there are any -- are not working and pose the biggest political challenge to his re-election in 2012.
According to the Gallup Poll's tracking surveys, no other issue is more important to voters than the economy, and clearly the voters are not happy with Obama's performance. It is one of his weakest scores: 55 percent say he is doing a poor job of making America prosperous again.
Gallup reported Thursday that the president's overall job approval rating has now sunk to 45 percent, with 46 percent of Americans saying they disapprove of his performance.
Gallup's national economic tracking numbers tell us why. They put the current unemployment rate at 9.9 percent, and, more ominously, the underemployment rate (which counts discouraged workers who are no longer looking for a job or have been forced to work part-time,) at 19.6 percent.
A recent Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans say this is a "bad time" to find a quality job.
I reported in a recent column that, despite Obama's claim that the job picture is improving, half of all states now have unemployment rates of between 9 and 14.2 percent. Ten of these states are above 10 percent.
The overall economy has climbed out of the 2008-09 recession largely because businesses have cut costs, improved productivity and boosted earnings.
But economic growth has been anemic, and 2011 isn't looking any better. Economists who have been making bullish forecasts of higher growth of up to 4 percent are lowering their estimates. A survey of top business economists by CNBC found that nearly 40 percent of them think the economy will be weaker this year.
The reasons: oil prices surging to more than $100 a barrel and are likely to climb higher; gas prices hitting $4 a gallon or more are expected to remain high, hitting every sector of the economy with higher costs that will boost prices across the board, from food to transportation.
Another huge factor threatening the economy's future prosperity, which remains a major issue with voters: uncontrolled government spending, which is nearing $4 trillion annually and running up a $1.6 trillion deficit this fiscal year, bleeding needed investment capital out of the economy.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report at the end March that said Obama's spending blueprint would lead to $9.5 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years, $2 trillion more than the White House's estimates. Worse, his budget policies would double the government's national debt held by the public, pushing it to $20.8 trillion by 2021.
They may be ignoring all of this on the nightly network news shows. But ordinary Americans struggling to make ends meet, or still looking for work, know that the economy remains the No. 1 problem facing our country -- and that Obama doesn't know how to fix it.