Skyrocketing inflation combined with perceptions President Joe Biden has been slow to respond are putting Democrats on the defensive and boosting Republican efforts to recapture congressional majorities in 2022.
The cost of household goods — everything from groceries to energy to automobiles — is up significantly over the past year and rising faster than it has in three decades. This sticker shock is fomenting anxiety about the economy and frustration over the presumed lack of aggressive federal action to stabilize prices. Voters blame Biden, a political dynamic manifesting in public opinion polls suggesting a red wave is poised to sweep Democrats from power in midterm elections.
“We’re in a tough spot right now. Voters clearly don’t think we’re doing enough to help lower their costs,” a Democratic strategist said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s political challenges. “We need to be out there every day talking about how we’re lowering costs and Republicans are working to keep costs high while bailing out the wealthiest few.”
The White House seems to be getting the message, albeit a bit late.
Since Biden assumed office, hiring has accelerated and consumer spending has increased, signs the economy is steadily recovering from a deep recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, the administration chalked up inflation to these positive developments, declaring it the “transitory” effect of an economy picking up steam from a near complete shutdown. But recently, Biden and his top aides have begun to gingerly acknowledge inflation is a problem and vowed to address it.
“Today’s data show that even as we work to address the real challenge that elevated inflation from supply chain bottlenecks poses for Americans’ pocketbooks and outlook, the economy is making progress,” said Brian Deese, Biden’s chief economic adviser, as part of a lengthy published statement. “The Administration remains focused on growing our economy and bringing prices down for American families.”
Dane Strother, a Democratic strategist, concedes that inflation is a political hurdle for his party but said it is far too early to make predictions about how much the issue will matter in an election that is nearly 12 months away. “No one knows how long this persists,” he said. “Inflation is clearly a problem, but a year is an eternity in politics.”
Republicans say Biden and the Democrats still sound as though they are not listening to what voters are telling them.
Voters, GOP operatives say, have concluded inflation is having a negative impact on their spending power; they worry rising prices are undermining their financial well-being and could do so for the foreseeable future. By continuing to refer to the increased cost of goods and services as the necessary byproduct of a healthy economy, the president is effectively telling voters their experience is illegitimate and that their concerns are invalid.
There may be no bigger faux pax in politics than telling voters their most pressing priorities are misplaced.
Biden, Republican strategist Brad Todd said, has “minimized” inflation, “he’s downplayed it — and now they’re acting like it’s a good thing. It’s insulting.” Republicans trace this “insult” directly to recent polling that shows they are on track for gains in the House and Senate in 2022 that will far exceed the five seats they need to win to take control of the former and the one seat they need to take command of the latter.
The Republicans have grabbed a lead of nearly 3.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls gauging which party voters would prefer run Congress. They now lead the Democrats 45.7% to 42.3%. The GOP’s advantage is built on public opinion polls conducted in November, as rising inflation and problems associated with it has have grown more concerning to voters. Biden’s signature on the popular, bipartisan infrastructure bill has not reversed the Democrats’ slide.
What inflation is allowing Republicans to do is revive government spending as an issue that works for them after years of voters seeming not to mind that Washington was incurring massive debts and deficits. Republicans have been arguing the money Biden is spending — $2 trillion in coronavirus relief, then $1 trillion for infrastructure and, if the president has his way, approximately $2 trillion on social programs — is the cause of runaway inflation.
The GOP is convinced voters are finally listening.
“The big problem for the Democrats is that the voters have already decided that trillions of dollars in government spending has created this economic mess, and they don’t buy that spending trillions more is going to make things better,” Republican strategist Rob Simms said. “In fact, they know it will make things worse.”
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