WASHINGTON – The White House’s initial strategy for dealing with inflation was to assure Americans that rising prices were a short-term problem fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.
But after inflation hit a 40-year high, President Joe Biden is trying a different, two-pronged approach: Promise Americans that high prices are the administration’s top priority. Blame Republicans for failing to offer a plan to give Americans relief.
The problem with that line of attack: Democrats, not Republicans, are in charge in Washington. Blaming the party out of power for the current state of affairs is seldom a winning strategy, political analysts said.
“There’s just not a lot of evidence that these kind of arguments play to a president’s advantage,” said William Howell, political scientist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “In unified or divided government, presidents are held accountable for objective measures of the economy – fairly or not.”
Biden got a bit of good news Wednesday when the Labor Department reported that although inflation remained elevated in April, it eased off its 40-year high – a signal that the surge in consumer prices since last summer may have peaked.
Record gas prices and a baby formula shortage
Even so, overall consumer prices edged up 0.3% from March. Record-high gas prices – the average price per gallon was $4.40 on Wednesday, according to AAA – and a baby formula shortage add to the angst many American households feel.
Biden sought to reassure Americans that he understands the pain inflation inflicts.
“I come from a family where, when the price of gas or food went up, we felt it,” he said at the White House on Tuesday. “It was a discussion at the kitchen table.”
In a statement issued after the release of the latest figures on Wednesday, Biden said inflation remains “unacceptably high” and repeated that lowering prices is his administration’s “top economic priority.” He pointed to an initiative to partner with businesses to make high-speed internet more affordable for some low-income Americans as one example of what he’s doing to fight inflation.
Biden’s reassurance that higher prices are his administration’s top priority poses a dilemma for Democrats, who hold not only the White House but slim majorities in the House and the Senate. Inflation is likely to be the top issue in the midterm elections, and voters often punish the party in power for a bad economy.
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‘There’s a risk … that he appears out of touch’
Considering what’s at stake, Biden had no choice but to try to ease Americans’ concerns, Howell said, but in doing so, he guaranteed that ownership of the issue lies with Democrats.
“This is a matter of such central importance that it’s hard to pivot away from,” Howell said. “If he doesn’t own it, there’s a risk of it owning him, that he appears out of touch with very real concerns that Americans have about gas prices and the rising cost of groceries.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said it’s important to connect with voters on the issues they care about most – and, right now, that’s the economy.
“At the same time, if you’re going to consistently address inflation as an issue that’s your top priority, then you have to have action,” he said.
Republicans know that Biden’s blame-the-minority-party strategy won’t work, Bonjean said. They tried it in 2006. George W. Bush was in the White House, and the GOP held majorities in the House and the Senate. But Republicans tried to pin problems with the economy, immigration and other issues on Democrats.
“It failed miserably,” said Bonjean, who served as communications director for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Republicans lost their majorities in the House and the Senate that fall “because voters see the folks who are in charge as the ones who are supposed to solve the problem,” Bonjean said. “That’s why they were elected.”
Can Biden do more to tame inflation?
The reality is there isn’t much more the president can do to lower inflation, said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington.
“They’re doing, I think, all the right things on improving the supply chains and making sure the reports are working well,” Edelberg said. “They should keep doing that.”
Many Americans expect Biden to do more.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, according to a poll released Wednesday by Fairleigh Dickinson University. Sixty-two percent say the president has “some” or “a lot” of control over inflation, a figure that included 50% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans.
“Figures like these have scholars of the presidency pulling their hair out,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at the university and executive director of the poll. “Inflation right now is a global problem: There’s nothing the president of the U.S. can do about it. But Americans are expecting him to do something.”
One immediate move Biden could do to address price hikes is reducing tariffs, Edelberg said. The president said Tuesday that the White House is reviewing tariffs imposed on China during the Trump administration.
“It would have been a welcome step a long time ago,” Edelberg said. “It would be a welcome step now.”
The labor market is not the driving force behind inflationary pressure, Edelberg said, but it eventually could be. The White House should be proactive in addressing that, she said.
The White House could push for better infrastructure to help people get back to work and make it easier to stay in their job, Edelberg said. For example, she noted, ensuring people have access to paid leave and sick leave would “make it more possible for people to work, and the increase of return on working would have effects.”
A lot of what can be done next to address inflation relies on monetary policymakers, such as the Federal Reserve Bank.
“Monetary policy is now taking pretty aggressive steps to do what it can to slow the economy to slow demand for goods and services,” Edelberg said.
Michael Collins and Rebecca Morin cover the White House. Follow Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Morin @RebeccaMorin_.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Paul Davidson
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Biden’s blame-the-Republicans strategy on inflation work?