Democratic allies press White House to focus more on inflation
NANTUCKET, Mass. - The Biden administration has taken pains in recent days to show it is working to ease the pain of inflation for Americans.
"Moms and dads are worried, asking, 'Will there be enough food we can afford to buy for the holidays? Will we be able to get Christmas presents to the kids on time? And if so, will they cost me an arm and a leg?'" President Joe Biden said in a Tuesday speech on the economy, in which he made a point of highlighting his administration's successes boosting the economy while empathizing with Americans worried about prices.
The emphasis comes after months of pleas from worried Democrats, who have pressed White House officials to do more to acknowledge inflation as a central concern for voters and tout what they are doing to combat it.
That group included at least four leading Democratic pollsters who've urged White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain to make a bigger show of the policies that Biden is pursuing to stem inflation, with at least one saying they should point the finger at the villains in an economy in which large companies have seen record profits, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who regularly speaks to the administration, also made the case directly to the White House in the aftermath of Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe's surprise loss in the Virginia governor's race earlier this month, telling officials that Biden must sharpen his focus on the economy and talk to voters more directly about it, according to two other people familiar with the conversations.
Any suggestion that the White House focus on inflation is new is a "false narrative, to put it bluntly" said one top White House economic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Another top White House official said that Klain has been contacted recently by just one pollster who raised inflation as an issue. Klain told the pollster that the White House was aware of it and had been taking it seriously for months, and the White House didn't change course based on the conversation, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Klain's thinking.
The White House pointed to a raft of actions Biden has taken - starting as early as February - to address inflation and noted high-profile appearances of top economic aides talking about the issue. It also sent a list of 26 tweets, posted to Biden's official account from May to November, that tied various White House policies to improving economic figures.
But the issues causing alarm among those allies, who came forward after many of those tweets and actions, are underscored by Biden's dismal approval ratings. Just 42% of Americans approve of the job that Biden is doing, according to a new NPR-Marist poll, the lowest to date of their surveys. And nearly 40% said that inflation is their greatest economic concern, far surpassing other worries such as wages, labor shortages and unemployment.
Americans are responding to a serious problem: Inflation reached a three-decade high in October, driven by spikes in energy prices and backlogs in the supply chain.
The White House has struggled to figure out exactly how to respond to inflation in part because the economy is growing stronger by other measures, according to a person who has spoken frequently with top White House officials about the problem and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Aside from the rising costs, many of the key indicators that economists usually use to determine the health of the economy - such as the unemployment rate and wage growth - are good, and even better than expected in some cases. For instance, on Wednesday, new data came out showing that jobless claims plummeted to the lowest levels in half a century.
There has also been a debate within the West Wing and Biden's orbit about how long inflation will last, said several people familiar with the dialogue.
The advice comes from all quarters: At a bill signing at the White House last Thursday, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, told the president that he thought the administration had a strong message on the economy, and should focus on that.
"We used to have the problem of not enough jobs and now we have the problem of not enough workers," Coons recalled telling the president. "It's a good problem to have. Let's focus on having that problem and celebrating the fact that the economy is working and getting Americans back to work."
There has been a flurry of activity in recent weeks to address the problem - some of it the result of long-planned actions and some stemming from more recent decisions.
Biden this week authorized a major release from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve made in conjunction with China and several other countries, a headline-grabbing move designed to drive down gas prices at the pump. On Monday, he nominated Jerome Powell for another term as chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, sidestepping liberals' concerns and keeping President Donald Trump's pick in charge of the central bank.
The White House is also more aggressively highlighting the parts of its legislative agenda that will save money for Americans, making the case that new government initiatives and programs in the package will reduce prices on key items such as prescription drugs, child care and housing.
The Biden team said it's a coincidence that it is making so many anti-inflation moves at once.
"Yes, we have now passed the infrastructure bill," said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the thinking in Biden's inner circle. "Yes, we've passed [Build Back Better] in the House. Yes, the president tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Yes, we are going on offense because BBB is an anti-inflation policy. Yes, we have tamped down Democratic infighting. So a lot is aligning at once, thanks to months of work - which continues."
Top White House economic aides say that the administration has been eyeing inflation from the start.
In February, the White House economic team focused on the lack of semiconductors that was, among the factors, driving up the costs of new cars. In June, it rolled out a task force to more broadly address supply chain shortages that have put pressure on prices.
In August, White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese wrote to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to ramp up enforcement on oil and gas companies, more than two months before Biden himself, last week, called on the FTC to investigate possible "illegal conduct" by oil and gas companies to keep the price of gas artificially high.
White House economic aides acknowledge that Biden's policies are "responsive" to new conditions and that the president actively monitors economic data and trends. "When the president and the team identify challenges, we move to try to address them," the White House economic adviser said.
Part of the challenge facing the White House is that inflation affects so many people, which makes it particularly important to combat.
"The thing about inflation is everyone perceives it as affecting them," said Jason Furman, who led the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama.
"The unemployment rate is better than where anybody expected it to be. The inflation rate is worse than anybody expected," Furman added.
Some in the White House acknowledged that Biden faced a challenge talking about what he's doing to curb inflation over the past three or four months because his attention was on the delicate - and at times messy - negotiations over his legislative package.
During the complicated and time-consuming negotiations, outside groups, Democratic lawmakers and other allies largely focused on fighting over legislative process and what should and should not be included in Biden's packages rather than amplifying what the administration viewed as clear successes, said a person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
That person added that Biden has publicly and privately argued that voters elected him to act to improve the lives of everyday Americans. When Georgia sent two Democratic senators to Washington after a January special election, Biden again viewed that as a call to action and pushed for quick passage of a stimulus measure that included checks to families.
The president similarly understood the elections earlier this month - McAuliffe's loss in Virginia and the closer-than-expected win by the Democratic governor of New Jersey over his Republican challenger - as a clear warning from voters that they expected an end to the legislative gridlock that had largely stalled his agenda.
Biden's message was clear, this person said: We are either moving forward on infrastructure and social spending, or we are turning out attention to something else that can deliver results for working families.
The White House has done more since Democrats' Election Day debacle to demonstrate that it has been proactive. On Nov. 10, Biden toured the Port of Baltimore, highlighting how his infrastructure bill would help alleviate problems with what he called the "incredibly complex" nature of supply chains.
"When global disruptions hit, like a pandemic, they can hit supply chains particularly hard," Biden said in Baltimore. "Covid-19 has stretched the global supply chains like never before."
The administration also is now more forcefully defending itself from Republican attacks that Biden's major spending packages have caused inflation. The White House is instead saying that, by blocking Biden's current climate change and social policy bill, the GOP will contribute to higher prices.
So far, the White House's moves have not halted inflation or eased concerns among Americans. Seventy percent of Americans rated the economy negatively, up from 58% this spring, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month.
The poll also found that Americans were split on whether Biden was to blame for the current rate of inflation, with 48% saying he deserves a great deal or good amount of blame, and 50% saying he doesn't deserve much or any blame.
Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found 68% of adults saying increased prices for things such as food and gasoline have caused them to change their spending habits.
In another sign that inflation has thoroughly seeped into the culture as a concern for voters - and thus become a political concern for Democrats - the satirical Onion website even joined the ribbing on Tuesday with a fake but biting headline about the treasury secretary's efforts to stem inflation: "Janet Yellen Announces Americans Can Use Promo Code 'THANKS' For 10% Off All U.S. Goods And Services."
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The Washington Post's Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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