Biden’s focus on inflation underscores political challenge

President Biden on Wednesday once again turned his attention toward inflation, traveling to Illinois to give a speech about high food prices he says are driven up by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

It marked the second day in a row the White House opted to focus on an issue that could prove to be detrimental in the November midterm elections but one that Democrats say the administration cannot dodge. 

“It’s a good idea to grasp the issue firmly, not avoid it,” said Bill Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program and a former domestic policy aide to former President Clinton. 

“Give the American people the view, at least evidence for the view, that you’re on the case. It’s always good when the president is seen to be working on the problems that people care about the most,” he said. 

Democrats see inflation as a major political challenge for Biden, who himself has little power to control increased prices. But the administration on Wednesday — in keeping with its message that Biden is doing all he can — announced a suite of actions aimed at addressing food shortages through the domestic agricultural sector.

“Right now, America is fighting on two fronts: at home, it’s inflation and rising prices. Abroad, it’s helping Ukrainians defend their democracy and feeding those who are left hungry around the world,” Biden said in a speech at a farm in Kankakee, Ill., where his backdrop was a large tractor and White House signage. 

The White House got some modestly good news on Wednesday, as new Labor Department data showed inflation eased slightly to 8.3 percent during the month of April. 

But inflation in some goods and services continued to rise, carrying warnings. While gas prices dropped in April, the cost of food, shelter and airfare saw sizable increases.  

“It’s heartening that the annual inflation cooled in April,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Inflation is unacceptably high, and bringing down prices is [Biden’s] top priority. That is going to be our main focus.” 

Recent polls have shown inflation rising on the public’s list of concerns, while worries about the COVID-19 pandemic have diminished. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval ratings remain deflated.

The president has limited control over inflation — most of that falls with the Federal Reserve — and few policy ideas now are going to have a meaningful impact on inflation over the short term. The Biden administration has taken a range of targeted actions, many of them aimed at easing supply chain issues prompted by the pandemic.

In timing with Wednesday’s farm visit, the Biden administration announced that it would increase the number of U.S. counties that are eligible for insurance coverage for double cropping, increase assistance to farmers who employ “precision agriculture” and double an already-promised federal investment in domestic fertilizer production to $500 million. 

The administration has blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine as the main drivers of elevated inflation, and officials have even branded recent price increases “Putin’s price hike,” after the Russian president. 

But economists say that pandemic-related government spending also contributed to the current situation. The Biden administration has disputed the notion that the president’s American Rescue Plan, the third such COVID-19–related economic relief bill passed by Congress since the start of the pandemic, had a major impact on prices. 

Biden received some criticism last year for not doing enough to speak to public concerns about rising inflation and demonstrate his administration’s actions to address prices. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are counting on inflation to be a potent political weapon. They have blamed Biden for high gas, food and other skyrocketing costs as they look to seize control of the House and Senate in the midterms.

But the White House has stepped up its public campaign. In addition to Biden speaking more regularly about his plans to fight inflation, he has also sought to draw contrast with Republicans by accusing GOP elected officials of having little to offer in the way of solutions.

“Inflation is the biggest economic challenge a White House can face,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former White House spokesman under George W. Bush. “There’s no easy solution, and voters experience it every single day. I think the White House isn’t talking about inflation because it wants to, but because it has to.” 

On Tuesday, Biden offered a window into his strategy. 

“I think what I have to do is explain in simple, straightforward language what’s going on,” he said. 

Biden put that to the test on Wednesday as he explained to an audience in Kankakee how a Russian blockade at Ukrainian seaports is preventing the Eastern European nation from exporting grain to other countries. 

The White House has also tried to elevate a controversial proposal offered by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to argue that Republicans would raise taxes on middle-class Americans and threaten programs like Social Security if they were to gain power. 

“This is about making the midterms more of a contrast rather than a referendum,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. 

It’s unclear how much the White House’s strategy on inflation will affect the midterms. Historically, the first midterm election after a president takes office goes poorly for the party in power. 

“It might help,” Galston said of the White House’s message. “It’s certainly better than nothing, which is pretty much what there was previously.”

Conant, meanwhile, argued that the messaging wouldn’t matter if inflation remains high.

“At the end of the day, speeches aren’t going to tame inflation. As long as gas is high and prices are rising, the president’s approval ratings are going to suffer,” he said.

Tags Biden Bill Galston

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