White House tries to pivot messaging on economy

The White House is seeking to revamp its messaging on inflation and other economic issues that have been haunting the Biden presidency. 

After months of playing defense, the White House is starting to more deliberately acknowledge negative economic news, after some Democrats complained they were ignoring the inflation problem.   

Data released this week showed that consumer prices spiked 6.2 percent over the past year, complicating the White House’s picture of a strong recovery that has yielded substantial jobs gains month after month.

Speaking at the Port of Baltimore this week, President Biden sought to turn the situation around.

He acknowledged that rising costs of basic goods are “worrisome” even amid more positive news on the employment gains. He also spent several minutes trying to explain the supply and demand issues that have driven up costs during the coronavirus pandemic, and pointed to steps the administration is taking to address supply chain problems.

In response to a reporter’s question Friday, Vice President Harris described rising costs as a high priority of the administration and said it was important to recognize the burden placed on families.

“Prices have gone up and families and individuals are dealing with the realities that bread costs more, that gas costs more,” Harris said. “It is something that we take very seriously.” 

Biden’s poll numbers have declined in recent weeks, adding urgency to a pivot for the White House.

“Clearly, what they’re doing isn’t working in terms of messaging,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. 

The White House sees the newly-passed infrastructure bill as a concrete step Biden can use to argue his administration is taking steps to ease inflationary pressures by resolving supply chain bottlenecks, though its unclear how long it will take the measure to have an impact. 

“If we do it right, we know what it will mean,” Biden said during a Cabinet meeting Friday on the implementation of the bill. “It will create millions of new jobs, it will grow the economy, and we’ll win the world economic competition that we’re engaged in.” 

Biden added that the bill will “ease — and I say, yes, ease — lower inflationary pressures on our economy.”

A cornerstone of the White House’s message is also that Biden’s proposed social spending package is designed to lower costs of essential services like child care for working families. 

During a Friday press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki displayed a graphic showing that, among other things, Biden’s Build Back Better agenda would start cutting child care costs in half in 2022; make preschool free for many families beginning in 2022; and lower the cost of hearing coverage for the elderly beginning in 2023.

“This is a strong case for moving forward with this agenda because what we’re really talking about is costs to American families, how it’s impacting them, and that’s something that if we don’t act now, we won’t be able to address these things in the short term, either,” Psaki said.

But some argue that the White House’s argument that Biden’s legislative agenda will cure inflationary problems will not convince the public. 

Bill Galston, chair of Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and a former Clinton domestic policy aide, argued that the administration has given Americans the impression that they don’t believe inflation is a problem and that Biden needed to display “honest talk” and “credible action.” 

“I don’t think that people think the administration is doing anything, not even acknowledging the problem. I think that’s a big mistake,” Galston said. 

Others came to the White House’s defense.

Eric Schultz, a former spokesman for the Obama White House, argued that Biden has made a strong case for the economic recovery but that his message has been drowned out by “the media’s infatuation with inflation that ignores the successes.” 

“The bottom line is that confidence in the economy is inextricably linked to anxiety around the pandemic. If COVID continues to recede, people will feel much more assured about our economic future,” Schultz added.

Republicans are trying to make surging inflation an issue ahead of the midterm elections, blaming Biden’s policies for contributing to the rise in costs of goods and arguing his social spending package will make it worse.

Economists like Larry Summers, who served as a top economist for Obama, said this week that the social spending bill would not contribute to inflation, even as he argued that the White House had been wrong in its predictions about inflation thus far.

A CNN poll out earlier this week showed that the majority of Americans — 72 percent — say Biden “hasn’t paid enough attention to the nation’s most important problems.”

The survey, conducted before the passage of the infrastructure bill, showed that more than 51 percent of those polled said the economy was the nation’s most important issue. 

But the Democratic-leaning Navigator poll released Friday showed that Biden’s approval rating saw an uptick of seven points after the passage of the infrastructure legislation, a sign Biden may be starting to turn things around. 

Democratic strategist Christy Setzer acknowledged that Biden has taken a beating from the economy, but said he is “now armed with two pretty significant pieces of economic data he can sell,” pointing to the infrastructure bill and also vaccinations for school-aged children. 

Biden is slated to sign the infrastructure bill at the White House on Monday before embarking on trips to New Hampshire and Michigan to promote it — three public appearances that will afford him the chance to speak to Americans’ economic woes and explain how his agenda will address them.

“So now he just needs to get back to the basics of salesmanship: Go local and pound the pavement. Tell the people in Dayton, Philly, Phoenix and Miami why all this matters. Get your cabinet secretaries and economic spokespeople on cable. Do local events. Full court press. Turn it around,” said Setzer. 



Tags Build Back Better Inflation Infrastructure Jen Psaki Joe Biden

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