Retailers are generally optimistic about their holiday performance so far, although shaky economic conditions could change things quickly, the chief executive officer of American Express Co said on Tuesday.

Ken Chenault, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said retailers were telling him the holiday had started better than they expected and that online sellers were feeling very good about their results.

But Chenault said unemployment and economic uncertainty were still very much a problem and could yet affect the holiday season.

It won't take a lot at all to throw things off-course, he said.

The unemployment problem in the United States will not improve until squabbling politicians start to compromise more, Chenault added.

In the Western world in general, part of what needs to happen is we need to have our leaders engaged in principled compromise, he said.

Chenault, who sits on the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and is co-chairman of the Business Roundtable, gave the speech as part of a series the CFR hosts on business and foreign policy.

Chenault said the president's council had made real progress in its work, but execution on that progress will ultimately be the key.

In the meantime, he said, there are solutions that could improve the unemployment situation without congressional intervention. Among the examples he highlighted were faster visa processing and faster permitting for construction projects.

Every single regulation, every single action should be put through the prism of job creation, Chenault said. We really need more of a single-minded focus on what are we doing to create jobs.

Uncertainty about the future of the euro zone has affected the economy of late, Chenault said, but he added that there was a level of cautious optimism that a deal would be reached.

I would at least say the momentum is moving in a better direction, he said.

(Reporting By Ben Berkowitz)