By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER and PAUL WISEMANWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The U.S. economy, the expected focus of Tuesday night's State of the Union speech, is much healthier than it was four years ago. Yet growth remains slow and unemployment high. In early 2009, the U.S. economy was in the midst of a full-blown panic sparked by the collapse of a housing bubble. Companies were slashing jobs. The unemployment rate was surging. Auto sales in January 2009 had reached a 26-year low. "You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis," President Barack Obama said in his first State of the Union-style address in February 2009. The numbers were frightening. Employers cut 794,000 jobs in January 2009 and 4.5 million from November 2008 through April 2009. Home prices plunged 19 percent in the 12 months that ended in January 2009. Eventually, they fell by a third overall before bottoming in late 2011. Perhaps the clearest barometer of the pain was soaring unemployment. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in January 2009, just below the current 7.9 percent. But only two months later, in March 2009, it was nearly a full point higher â¿¿ 8.7 percent. By October, it had peaked at 10 percent. The recovery has been agonizingly slow. Consumers have been wary about spending after piling up debt in the mid-2000s. Local governments, squeezed by tight budgets, have cut 560,000 jobs in four years. And until recently, an anemic housing market discouraged the home construction that in past economic recoveries had powered growth. Now, companies are hiring modestly but steadily. Employers added an average of 181,000 jobs a month in 2012 and 175,000 in 2011. Still, unemployment remains far higher than the 5 percent to 6 percent that economists regard as normal. But home prices are finally rebounding as sales and housing starts have recovered. And Americans are buying cars again.