WASHINGTON – It's a difficult balancing act. Where some economists see "green shoots" of a recovery others see only yellow weeds of continuing recession. It's hard to know for sure whether things are getting better or worse.
President Harry S. Truman whimsically asked for a "one-handed economist." He complained that "all my economists say, `on the one hand ... on the other hand.'"
That's pretty much the dilemma that President Barack Obama and policymakers now face.
With consumer spending accounting for more than two-thirds of the economy, Obama is mindful that reviving it depends a lot on restoring confidence. So he's been trying to put the most positive spin on any signs of improvement, as have leaders in other recession-wracked countries.
"It's safe to say we have stepped back from the brink, that there is some calm that didn't exist before," Obama said recently about what already is the longest recession since World War II.
On the other hand, there's a clear danger. Sound too cheery and people lose confidence in your judgment, especially if their own eyes see a bleaker picture.
Ease up on government stimulus spending too soon and the recovery could be snuffed out. Talk by some Group of Eight finance ministers about stimulus exit strategies briefly spooked international stock markets. But keep stimulus spending going too long and you end up with huge deficits and soaring inflation.
Polls show people in the United States increasingly are concerned about the government's record levels of debt, a sour legacy for future generations.
So Obama has talked up and talked down the economy. At the same time.