Donald Lambro

The Federal Reserve's long-delayed decision to start pulling away from its multi-trillion dollar stimulus program was filled with self-doubts about the still-shaky Obama economy.

The news headlines that followed its announcement on Wednesday said the "Fed will begin easing stimulus." But behind its decision were insecure caveats that the nation's central bank remains ready to inject further stimulus if the economic data in the months to come showed persistent weaknesses in the job market.

As if to reassure Congress and the administration that the sluggish economy still isn't ready to go solo any time soon, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made this cautionary promise:

"Asset purchases remain a useful tool that we will deploy as needed to meet our objectives." Thus, the Fed said it will begin winding down its bond-buying stimulus program tentatively and slowly. It will cut back its purchases of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds from $85 billion a month to $75 billion.

But Bernanke cautioned that he's prepared to stop the winding down process temporarily and skip "a meeting or two" if circumstances warranted.

A further sign of the Fed's caution was its decision to hold short-term interest rates at near zero. The Fed said that the board of governors didn't expect to think about raising its rates at least until 2015, and three members said any future hike wouldn't happen until 2016, at the earliest.

This alone suggests the Fed is operating on a hope and a prayer that the economy is going to continue to improve under President Obama, but they're not willing to bet the barn on it just yet.

Bernanke has been burned before when he thought the economy was on the mend, only to see it turn in slower job numbers and growth rates than he had forecast.

While the economy added 203,000 jobs in November, pushing the unemployment rate down to 7 percent, other data showed persistent weaknesses.

The truth is that the unemployment rate's decline last month "was driven more by a shrinking workforce than a pickup in hiring," writes the Washington Post's economic analyst Ylan Q. Mui.

The nation's once-mighty workforce has been steadily declining for several years now because of the long term unemployed who say they've stopped looking for a job and thus are no longer counted by the government as among the unemployed.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.