Will the Economy Save Obama? Larry Summers Doesn't Think So

The president's former top economist sees a stagnant economy on the horizon in the months leading up to the election.

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Larry Summers when he was director of the National Economic Council (Reuters)

It's generally agreed that the president's chances of reelection hinge on the state of the American economy over the next few months. A sudden plunge into recession would likely loft Mitt Romney to victory by lending credence to his argument that Obama's policies haven't worked, while a sudden surge of growth would have the opposite effect.

But Obama's former top economist doesn't think either scenario is likely to happen.

"The good news is, the chance of recession in the U.S. is very odds-off" over the next six months, Larry Summers, who served for two years as director of Obama's National Economic Council, told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday afternoon. But, he added, "the bad news is that the most likely outcome is probably growth at a rate that is insufficient to keep pace with population growth and productivity growth."

The subtext of Summers' comments: If Obama is hoping for the economy to rescue his campaign, he'd better think again.

"You're likely not looking at a substantial reduction in unemployment or a substantial increase in the fraction of the population that are working," Summers said. The economy, he added, is "not likely to feel, over the next six months, terribly dynamic."

Summers' view is shared by most watchers of the economy and the campaign alike: that the months leading up to the election are likely to feature a continuing muddle of mixed economic news. The political question, then, is how successfully the respective campaigns manage to spin the news in their favor.

While Romney and other Republicans accuse Obama of miring the country in debt, Summers argued that the best way to reduce debt is to stimulate the economy to increase growth. "If we are successful in stimulating our economy, it's not going to leave behind a greater debt burden," he said.

Summers took an oblique swipe at Romney, saying, "You don't get credit for saying, 'I'm going to balance the budget, I'm just not going to tell you how.'"

As for whether the country is headed off a "fiscal cliff" when a combination of tax and spending deadlines come due at the end of the year, Summers was optimistic. The chance of that happening, he said, is "not zero, but very low."

As the source of his reasoning, he paraphrased Winston Churchill. "The U.S. always does the right thing," he said, "but only after fully exhausting the alternatives."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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