Steve Chapman

Before the contraction hit, 66.4 percent of all adults had jobs or were looking for them. Today, the figure is 64.2 percent. That may not sound like a big change, but there has been no comparable decline anytime in the past 60 years. It's a symptom of endless stagnation and profound despair.

Nor can we expect an early turnaround. Last month, the International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for GDP growth in the United States. This year, it expects the economy to expand by a puny 1.5 percent, and next year by 1.8 percent. In 1984, it grew by 7.2 percent.

Another big difference is that the Reagan recession was seen as painful but necessary -- the price of halting the double-digit inflation that ripped through the economy under President Jimmy Carter. And it succeeded. But under this president, inflation has gone up. Under Obama, it's been all pain and no gain.

All these gloomy indicators are only partly the fault of Obama, who inherited an economic train wreck engineered by George W. Bush. But after four years in office, he will have to answer for them.

Solutions, as it happens, are either out of reach or nonexistent. Liberal economists think the economy needs a big stimulus program, which can't pass Congress. Conservative economists think it needs less regulation and lower taxes, which will not happen under Obama.

Other economists say weak, slow recoveries are an inevitable consequence of financial crises like the one the U.S. suffered in 2008. No matter what your school of economic thought, you will need to keep taking Prozac for some time to come.

It's always possible that Republican hubris or ineptitude will come to Obama's rescue. But if he wins the race, it appears, he will have to do it carrying a piano on his back.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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