Ben Bernanke goes to Capitol Hill on Wednesday carrying the weight of high expectations.
The Federal Reserve chairman helped pull the country out of the worst recession since the 1930s. Now, lawmakers want to know what he can, or will, do to ease the jobs crisis and make sure the economic recovery lasts. Many will be looking, too, for any clues about when the Fed might start to tighten credit.
Bernanke, who will deliver his twice-a-year economic report to Congress, will be under more pressure than usual. It's an election year for lawmakers, whose constituents face near-double-digit unemployment, record-high home foreclosures and tough-to-get credit, especially for small businesses.
As he was sworn in for a second term as Fed chief this month, Bernanke said Congress and the White House must do their part to provide relief.
"We at the Federal Reserve cannot hope to solve all these problems on our own," he said.
To nurture the recovery, Bernanke and his Fed colleagues have pledged to hold a key interest rate at a record low near zero for an "extended period." The idea is for low rates to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and spend and keep the economy growing.
The unemployment rate, now at 9.7 percent, is expected to drop only slowly. Many economists think it will take until the middle of this decade for the jobless rate to decline to a more normal 5.5 percent to 6 percent.
Bernanke will probably have to reverse course and start tightening credit for millions of Americans even when unemployment is still high. The timing of that move will be the next big challenge for the Fed. Boosting rates too soon could derail the recovery. But waiting too long could trigger inflation and feed a speculative asset bubble. That, too, could threaten the economy, along with Americans' pocketbooks and nest eggs.
Some economists think any bump up in interest rates is still months away. Others think it won't happen until next year.
There's concern inside and outside the Fed about how the economy will fare later this year once government stimulus fades and the central bank continues to wind down support programs. Bernanke and some of his Fed colleagues don't rule out the possibility that the economy could slide back into a recession. Still, they say the risks are still low.
In his appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke is likely to engage in a delicate dance: Sounding confident that the recovery will endure, while acknowledging that more must be done to help unemployed Americans and those forced out of their homes by foreclosure.
Bernanke also is likely to stress to lawmakers that when the time is right, he's prepared to tighten credit and reel in trillions of dollars the Fed pumped out to fight the financial crisis.
After a bruising Senate confirmation battle last month, Bernanke wants to prove to Wall Street and Main Street that he will make decisions that are right for the economy even if they aren't politically popular. The ability to boost interest rates without congressional interference goes to the heart of the Fed's independence.
Some critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, however, have argued that the Fed hurt its independence by bailing out Wall Street firms. That bailout backlash eroded Bernanke's support in the Senate for a second term. His 70-30 vote was the closest vote ever for the post.
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