Facing a tide of negative public opinion over his handling of the economy, President Joe Biden is increasingly shifting his tone on the economy to confront concerns about inflation more directly.
But the pivot is coming after Biden and his advisers spent months downplaying economic fears and dismissing suggestions that prices would rise, undermining his credibility when it comes to spinning the current crisis.
“We still have a long way to go to fully recover from all the pain and destruction caused by the pandemic,” Biden said Monday in a speech announcing his Federal Reserve nominees. “And we’re still dealing with the difficult challenges and complications caused by COVID-19 that are driving up costs for American families. I know, for a lot of Americans, things are still very hard — very hard.”
Biden’s acknowledgment of the pressure put on many families by rising prices comes as his poll numbers continue to plummet. His latest approval rating average is roughly 41%, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, while an average of 53% disapprove of his job performance.
While a number of factors have contributed to the slide, Biden’s approval numbers began to fall over the summer, at a time when his message about the economy reflected an optimism that his administration no longer promotes.
Biden dismissed concerns from economists over the summer that his own policies — as well as supply chain disruptions caused by pandemic lockdowns — would drive up prices.
“I don’t know anybody, including Larry Summer — who’s a friend of mine — who’s worried about inflation, is suggesting that there’s any long-term march here if we do the things we’re going to do,” Biden said during a July 21 town hall with CNN.
Summers, the Treasury Secretary under former President Clinton and director of the National Economic Council under former President Barack Obama, had warned in a May op-ed that Biden’s massive stimulus bill, passed earlier this year, would contribute to inflation that was likely to last.
”[N]ot everything we are seeing is likely to be temporary,” Summers wrote in May. “A variety of factors suggests that inflation may yet accelerate — including further price pressures as demand growth outstrips supply growth; rising materials costs and diminished inventories; higher home prices that have so far not been reflected at all in official price indexes; and the impact of inflation expectations on purchasing behavior.”
Biden was even more dismissive in June when he suggested prices would simply “pop up” and fall back to normal levels after a brief window.
“Talking inflation — the overwhelming consensus is, it’s going to pop up a little bit and then go back down. No one is talking about, ‘This great, great deal,’” Biden said during a June 24 press conference.
The White House in July drew widespread criticism when it put out a tweet that made light of inflationary concerns with a series of barbecue puns that claimed the cost of grilling on July 4th would be lower this year.
Not only was the size of the savings — an average of 16 cents — so small that the tweet inspired ridicule, but the administration’s own data contradict the claim. The Department of Agriculture said the price of groceries was climbing in the summer, and it put out numbers recently that showed groceries cost 5.4% more in October than in October 2020.
Biden officials have made light of the supply chain breakdown as well.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sparked outrage last month when she responded mockingly to a question about shipping bottlenecks that people are experiencing a “tragedy of the treadmill that’s delayed.”
Gas prices are climbing alongside the cost of virtually all other goods, hitting their highest level in seven years last month.
Biden and his team have pivoted, too, on the seriousness of fuel supply shortages.
In early November, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm admitted people would pay more to heat their homes this winter in a direct acknowledgment of the consequences of strained fuel supply.
Biden on Tuesday released 50 million barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to lower prices at the pump, although experts have cautioned the one-time influx of such a relatively small amount of oil could have a limited effect.
For months, however, Biden has done little to address the issues creating the spike in gas prices.
He unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries members to increase global oil supply earlier this year, and he has repeatedly resisted calls to step up domestic energy production to meet the increased demand driving price increases.
Instead, Biden has spent months blaming the issues on unnamed malign forces in the fuel industry.
“We’re also going after the bad actors and pandemic profiteers in our economy. There’s a lot of evidence that gas prices should be going down, but they haven’t. We’ll be taking a close look at that,” Biden said during a Sept. 16 speech.
The White House has argued more recently that Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which is still languishing on Capitol Hill, will reduce inflation.
Negotiations on the bill, however, began long before inflation emerged as a top voter concern, and many of its programs would pump more money into an economy that is already at risk of overheating.