For Obama, the economy holds two large potential pluses.

First, there’s huge pent-up demand for homes and vehicles, because both sectors collapsed in the recession. Car and light-truck sales, which totaled about 17 million annually in 2004 and 2005, fell to 10.4 million in 2009. In 2011, IHS estimated sales to reach 12.7 million. The decline in housing construction was even deeper, from about 2 million units annually in 2004 and 2005 to an estimated 600,000 in 2011.

Second, the consumer debt burden is dropping rapidly, notes Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, on his blog. Households have repaid some debts. Others have been written off; interest rates on many remaining loans have declined. On average, households paid 16.15 percent of their income toward loans, rents and leases in the third quarter of 2011, according to Federal Reserve data. That was the lowest since 1993 and down from a peak of 18.85 percent in the third quarter of 2007.