WASHINGTON - 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 last 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, or GDP, barely grew by between 1 and 1.5 percent annual rate.
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.
Obama is on a seven-day, four nation, goodwill Asian tour that includes Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. But its purpose was still unclear. Unless it is to get out of the country to 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, that has run into trouble from 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 the Evil Empire. Ronald Reagan returned to Berlin to order Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall." And the wall eventually came down.
There is no similarly galvanizing goal in 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 Washington Post analyst Dana Milbank.