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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Voters are going to blame someone for inflation, Democrats hope it's not them

    A shopper at Gerrity's Supermarket in Scranton, Pa., on Feb. 24, 2022. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg)

    Republicans got fresh ammunition to pummel Democrats on inflation this past week when President Joe Biden's party having little time and few tools to turn around voters' sour view of the economy before the midterm election.

    The election -- which will decide control of Congress and the fate of Biden's agenda -- isn't until November, but the public's judgment typically hardens during the spring and early summer. Democrats are entering the period with inflation running at a 40-year high and topping the list of voter priorities.

    "They have about 90 days," said Doug Sosnik, who was White House political director for former President Bill Clinton. "In that period the cake will be baked."

    Tuesday's report showing the consumer price index in March rose 8.5%, the fastest annual gain since 1981, is the latest gloomy marker before campaigns begin in earnest. High inflation is overshadowing bright spots for the economy, including an historically low 3.6% unemployment rate, solid growth and equity gains that have pushed up the benchmark S&P 500 more than 15% since Biden took office.

    "Runaway inflation is crushing American families and our economy," House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said in a tweet exemplifying Republican attacks. "Under President Biden, prices are accelerating faster than any time in more than 40 years, sucking up paychecks and draining savings."

    The Biden administration has struggled to address inflation since the president took office, initially calling it "transitory" and promising to tackle a supply-chain squeeze that has proved persistent. Russia's invasion of Ukraine further complicated those efforts, leaving Biden's advisers to label surging costs for gasoline and other goods as "Putin's price hike."

    "We will not relax until these price pressures ease and American households don't have to worry about inflation going forward," White House economist Jared Bernstein said on Bloomberg Television. He cited a raft of measures the administration has taken to address supply-chain bottlenecks and press for living-cost assistance in areas including drug, healthcare and childcare costs.

    Such pledges have yet to assuage the public, or investors -- who have become increasingly concerned that persistently high inflation will force the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy so much that it causes a U.S. recession.

    The president has released crude oil from the strategic petroleum reserve in an effort to address the crisis, and on Tuesday moved to temporarily allow expanded sales of higher ethanol-content gasoline. But there is little the White House or Congress can do that would have a noticeable impact on price gains in the near term.

    Democrats already were heading into the election with the odds stacked against them. Republicans only need to gain five seats to take control of the House, and the Senate is split 50-50. On average, the president's party has lost more than 25 House seats and about four Senate seats in the 19 midterm elections since World II.

    Attitudes of voters in America's suburbs, who have become the linchpin of U.S. politics, will be particularly important.

    Democrats wrested control of the House from the GOP in 2018 when suburbs swung against Donald Trump and the party gained 41 seats -- all but three from suburban districts. Biden won 54% of the suburban vote in 2020, a nine-point increase from Democrat Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance, according to the Pew Research Center. That played a decisive role in the five states he carried with the narrowest victories.

    A Republican comeback hinges on reversing those gains. High on the GOP target list are Democrats such as Reps. Tom Malinowski of Northern New Jersey, Kim Schrier of suburban Seattle and Katie Porter of California's Orange County, each of whom won House seats four years ago that the GOP had held since the early 1980s.

    Suburbs also are crucial in the most competitive Senate races, including communities surrounding Phoenix in Arizona, Las Vegas in Nevada, Atlanta in Georgia, Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the Boston-linked southern region in New Hampshire.

    Republicans have spent months assailing Biden and Democrats as out of touch on the cost of living and other kitchen-table concerns. Mitch McConnell blasts away at inflation at every opportunity. Florida Senator Rick Scott, head of the Senate GOP's campaign arm, issues a weekly update on "Biden's inflation crisis."

    The strategy is playing out across the country. In January, House Republicans' campaign arm put up billboards and local television advertisements in the southern New Hampshire district of Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas blaming him for soaring home-heating costs.

    "In general there's an exhaustion in this country that has been fueled by the highest inflation rate in 40 years," Sosnik said. "These concerns are even more pronounced in the suburbs."

    Democrats' efforts to deflect blame for high gasoline prices have had some success among suburban residents, with 38% attributing fuel price increases to Biden policies versus 24% citing oil companies and 28% the Russia-Ukraine War, according to a March 24-28 Quinnipiac Poll.

    But Biden's job ratings continue to show more Americans disapproving than approving of his performance.

    Even so, the country's recent travails "kind of unraveled a lot of suburban folks' notion of what the American Dream was supposed to be," said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster who focuses on suburban voters. "It's left them rattled and angry and looking for someone to take it out on."

    The average monthly income of Americans after inflation and taxes has been falling since last July, and in February was down 1.9% from a year earlier. Several academic studies have pointed to the trajectory of the indicator -- per capita real disposable personal income -- as a strong predictor of U.S. election outcomes.

    "It's too late" to address issues after the coming several months, said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AGF Investments, said on Bloomberg Television. "You can't say 'oh, in September I'm going to make some changes."'

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