On a recent visit to a family farm in rural Illinois, thousands of miles away from the front lines of the grinding war in Ukraine, Joe Biden lashed out at his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, blaming him for destabalizing global food supplies and driving up the cost of groceries at home.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Biden explained after a tour of the farm’s fields and grain bins, has dramatically reduced food exports from the warring nations that together supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, causing food prices to spiral.
“Right now, America is fighting on two fronts,” the president said. “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 because Russian atrocities exist.”
With less than six months before the midterm congressional elections, Biden is talking about the economy – a lot. It is the top issue on voters’ minds and, worryingly for Democrats, one of the biggest political liabilities for the president and his party.
Despite a streak of steady job growth and low unemployment, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy. Inflation, running at nearly its fastest rate in four decades, has become inescapable. Gas prices have surged to record highs as many families struggle to afford the basic necessities like food and rent. Now economists are warning of possible recession.
Compounding matters, a shortage of baby formula has left parents in one of the world’s wealthiest countries scrounging to feed their infants.
Amid the national tumult over the economy, Biden’s approval ratings have fallen sharply, dipping to the lowest point of his presidency – 39% – this month, according to the latest AP-NORC poll.
The visit to the Illinois farm was part of a wider effort by the White House to reset the narrative around the economy after months of unyielding criticism from Republicans, who have used inflation as a political cudgel against Biden.
In recent days, Biden has sought to tell a textured story about the economy, one that concludes with the sharp warning that as bleak as it can seem now, the alternative – Republican control of Congress – would be much worse.
In his telling, the administration pulled the nation back from the brink of economic catastrophe with a massive stimulus bill and mass vaccination campaign that saved lives and livelihoods during the depths of the pandemic. Two years on, there is much more to do.
Naming inflation as his “top domestic priority”, Biden has touted the administration’s efforts to put the economy on a sturdier path by strengthening the nation’s supply chains, cracking down on price gouging and releasing oil from the strategic reserve.
Under mounting pressure in recent weeks, he invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up baby formula production and launched “Operation Fly Formula” to rush shipments into the US from overseas.
Yet those actions, he charged, are being undermined by Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, which has sent fuel and food prices soaring; new Covid-19 lockdowns in China that are straining supply chains anew; alleged price-gouging by oil companies; and an “ultra-Maga” Republican party intent on obstructing the president at every turn.
Biden says he understands Americans’ frustration with rising costs and the slow pace of progress in Washington – so deeply, in fact, he could “taste” it. But electing Republicans, he argued, would not ease their troubles.
“Americans have a choice right now between two paths, reflecting two very different sets of values,” Biden said. He charged that the Republican party, still in the thrall of Donald Trump, had no serious plan to tackle inflation and was instead more focused on fighting issues such as banning textbooks from classrooms.
In a press release, the Republican National Committee accused Biden of being “desperate to blame anyone but himself for the worst inflation in 40 years”.
“But,” it added, “the American people know he is responsible.”
For Democrats who hold narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress, asking voters for two more years of unified government in Washington is a risk that Biden himself acknowledged.
Voters historically punish the president’s party in the midterm elections. And this cycle, Democrats have struggled to energize their base, deflated over the party’s failure to pass Biden’s sweeping agenda, designed to remedy longstanding economic challenges. At the same time, Democrats are struggling to persuade independent and moderate Republicans voters who recoiled from Donald Trump in 2018 and 2020.
Whether Democrats can change voters’ attitudes on the economy weighs heavily on their prospects.
Public opinion surveys have consistently found that voters have more trust in Republicans to handle the economy and inflation than Democrats. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 28% of Americans approved of the job Biden was doing to tackle inflation, while 68% disapproved. The same poll showed that 50% of Americans believe Republicans were better able to handle the economy. Just 36% said the same about Democrats.
The political headwinds against them, Democrats believe they have found an opening that will undercut Republicans’ advantage.
A plan written by Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, would require all Americans to pay some income tax, including families that don’t earn enough to owe taxes now, and would require Congress to reauthorize all federal legislation every five years.
Biden recently used his bully pulpit to elevate Scott’s 11-Point Plan to Rescue America, which he attacked as an “extreme” vision for the country.
Many Republicans, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the proposal. Downplaying the disagreement, the White House said it was the only comprehensive plan Republicans have put forward for the midterm elections. “This is not the last you’ve heard from us about chairman Scott’s tax plan that will raise taxes,” Jen Psaki, in her last week as White House press secretary, said.
In a withering response, Scott called Biden unfit for office and challenged him to a debate.
“Joe Biden can blame me all he wants,” the Florida senator said. “Here’s the truth: he’s the president of the United States, Democrats control the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats’ agenda is hurting American families and no amount of spin can change that.”
A polling memo by Navigator Research, a Democratic messaging group, underscores why the party is seizing on Scott’s plan. It found that the proposal, when described as a plan that would “raise taxes” on millions of working-class families and potentially threaten entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, was deeply unpopular, even among Republican voters. And when contrasted with the Democrats’ economic agenda, voters’ views of Biden and his party on the economy improved.
Isaiah Bailey, an advisor to Navigator Research, said it was incumbent on Democrats to make voters aware of these dueling visions for the country.
“Unpopular positions are only politically meaningful when they permeate public consciousness,” Bailey said. He added that Democrats must demonstrate that they are trying to deliver on their promises, even in the face of Republican opposition and procedural challenges like the filibuster.
“Democrats really need to look like fighters,” he said.
Maria Cardona, a veteran Democratic strategist who has urged her party’s leaders to talk more about the economy with more urgency and empathy, agreed.
“For way too long Republicans have gotten away with blaming Democrats, pointing the finger and talking about Biden’s policies,” she said.
With so much at stake this fall, including the push to ban abortion if the supreme court overturns Roe v Wade, as is expected, Cardona said it was imperative that Democrats draw a clear contrast with the opposition party.
“There’s no question in my mind that we are not taking advantage of the moment in time, when handing over control of Congress to the Republican party is more dangerous for the future of our democracy and for the well-being of our citizenship than it has been in at least a generation,” she said.
Surveys suggest that voters broadly understand – and support – the decision to impose sanctions on Russia, even if there are consequences for their pocketbooks. And many cite the ongoing pandemic as a leading cause of the nation’s economic woes. Yet there are signs dissatisfaction with the president’s economic leadership is hardening.
“It does not blunt their desire to have you produce a solution,” said Patrick Gaspard, president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington. “They’re clear on what the causation is but also clear that they want this president, this Congress, to solve the problem.”
A president’s ability to tackle inflation is limited. That power rests largely with the Federal Reserve.
Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, said there are indications that the president’s efforts to shore up the nation’s supply chains are taking root.
One of the best steps the White House can take, she said, is to “not create additional hurdles for monetary policymakers”.
“Let monetary policy run its course,” she said, adding that on that front she believes “they’re doing the right things there”.
Aiming to cool the economy, the central bank recently approved the sharpest rise in interest rates in more than 20 years. But Jerome Powell, fresh from being confirmed by the Senate for a second term as chair of the Federal Reserve, acknowledged the challenge of attempting to control inflation without tipping the US economy into a recession.
Ahead of Biden’s visit to Illinois, the White House received a dash of good news in an otherwise discouraging report: inflation slowed for the first time in months, though the annual rate remained high. But speaking at a fundraiser in Chicago later that day, Biden acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead.
“It’s going to be hard because inflation is going to scare the living hell out of everybody,” he said. “We have a problem we have to deal with. In the meantime, we can’t take our eye off all that could happen if we do not prevail.”
David Smith contributed to this report