If those forecasts are right, that would mark "substantial progress," he said.

The caveat

Nice as all that sounds, Bernanke made clear that the Fed is just as prepared to maintain its current pace of bond-buying if the better economic trends don't materialize.

"If you draw the conclusion that I just said that our purchases will end in the middle of next year, you've drawn the wrong conclusion," he said. "Our purchases are tied to what happens in the economy."

Bernanke likened any reduction in the Fed's bond purchases to a driver letting up on a gas pedal rather than applying the brakes. The Fed could just as easily step on the gas again, he said.

And he stressed that even after the Fed ends its bond purchases, it will maintain its $3.4 trillion investment portfolio, which will help keep long-term rates down.

"We will be providing whatever support is necessary," Bernanke said. "If the economy does not improve along the lines that we expect, we'll provide additional support."

It's business, not personal

Many economists think Bernanke will step down as Fed chairman in January, when his second four-year term ends. President Barack Obama said in a television interview earlier this week that Bernanke had already served longer than planned.

But Bernanke has been tight-lipped on his future.

"I would like to keep the discussion on monetary policy," he said. "I don't have anything for you on my personal plans."

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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