President Obama in Hawaii and Americans elsewhere found an unexpected present under their Christmas trees last week in a surprisingly growing economy, lifting some of the gloom otherwise hovering over the national outlook.
The gross domestic product (GDP) rose 5 percent in the third quarter, from July through September, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, for the fastest increase in any comparable period in 11 years. The Democratic National Committee, in what may turn out to be what former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once memorably called "irrational exuberance," chirped that the news "has already transformed the political conversation in Washington."
Considering the tortuous slog out of the Great Recession that has marked the first six years of the Obama presidency, it's probably too soon to declare that the American economy is finally out of the woods. But together with other optimistic signs, the president and the country can view the latest evidence as the best statistical evidence yet that health of the nation's business is in recovery.
On Wall Street, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average has exceeded 18,000 for the first time, up a whopping 175 percent from its all-time low of March 2009, and the S&P 500 figure enjoyed its 51st high in 2014. Stronger Internet sales, sinking personal debt, plunging oil prices and increasing government spending all have contributed to the outlook.
Federal spending alone rose nearly 10 percent in the third quarter and consumer spending rose 0.7 percent in November, up from 0.2 percent the previous month. In four of the last five quarters the GDP has risen 3.5 percent or more.
Unemployment has remained at 5.8 percent, and in November 321,000 jobs were created, along with a mild stirring in the heretofore wage stagnation that has fed the Democratic campaign against middle-class inequality and the party's hopes for a political bounce-back in 2016.
These upward trends have occurred in sharp contrast to the dim economic woes being experienced in Japan, Russia and much ofEurope, in the grip of serious recessions that could augur a return to earlier American ways of tourism abroad, after years of stay-at-home vacations. One Washington Post analyst, Matt O'Brien, has even been moved to observe of the phenomenon that "this isn't a blip. It's a boom."
Beyond all this, the Obama administration has reported that 6.4 million Americans have signed up for the president's previously beleaguered health-care insurance program through federal exchanges in 2015, a significant political turnaround from its horrific original startup.
All this has taken place as Mr. Obama himself appears to have shaken off the gloom of his party's midterm election shellacking, which will bring him a new year with Republican majority control of both the House and Senate. In his final 2014 news conference before heading to Hawaii for a family vacation, he displayed an uncommon buoyancy and even frivolity in confronting the challengers of his lame-duck status.
He reiterated his intention to remain on the course of using the executive orders available to him to prevent immigration deportations that would separate families, and to take other steps on his own to end-run Republican obstructionism in a predictable uncooperative Congress.
As one Democratic predecessor, John F. Kennedy, memorably and hopefully said regarding the economy, "a rising tide lifts all boats." But Obama's most liberal fellow Democrats will continue to push him for more aggressive policies at home to address that middle-class wage inequality that has kept too many boats still mired at or near the bottom throughout his presidency.
The rise of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is a discordant voice in his own party, taking on Wall Street banks whose avarice has been a factor in that wage inequality. Even if the improving economy is only a blip rather than a boom, it offers this lame-duck president an opportunity.
He should spend the new year cajoling the banking and investment sectors, and the business community generally, to loosen their wallets and start passing more of their ever-growing wealth on to lower and middle-class working stiffs for whom economic recovery still so badly lags.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.