WASHINGTON ― Voters’ concerns about rising costs are swamping every other political issue, souring even Democratic base voters on President Joe Biden’s administration and setting the stage for significant losses for the party in November’s midterm elections.
“It’s tough. I mean, it’s a tough issue,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “I think we have to make sure people understand that we know it’s real and it’s really causing pain. And then we do what we can. We can’t magically wave a wand and lower gas prices. But we can do what we can do.”
Even as the news cycle focuses on Russian atrocities in the invasion of Ukraine and on legislation targeting LGBTQ and abortion rights, Republicans are advancing at the state level, and polls and focus groups conducted by both parties show inflation is the dominant issue in the country. Figures released Tuesday showed consumer prices increased 8.5% in the year through March, the fastest inflation rate since 1981.
That increase was driven by increases in the price of food and gas. Meanwhile, what the Federal Reserve calls “core inflation” actually slowed, giving some hope to economists that the problem may have peaked. But it’s unlikely to stop before Election Day.
Inflation is a global problem, but the rate of inflation has been higher in the United States than in Europe. Economists generally point to skyrocketing demand since the introduction of coronavirus vaccines, coupled with supply chain issues. Conservatives, and some liberals, also argue the administration’s American Rescue Plan added to the problem.
Voters are not pleased with how either party is handling the inflation debate, but Democrats, who hold the presidency and narrow control of both chambers of Congress, are set to pay more of a political price unless Biden and party leadership can rapidly squelch inflation or change the dominant narratives about the economy.
A major problem? Democrats aren’t sure what they can do. Biden plans to travel to Iowa on Tuesday to announce a new EPA rule allowing gas stations to sell 15% ethanol-blend gasoline this summer ― normally they are allowed to sell up to 10% because of pollution concerns ― which should help ease demand and lower prices for gasoline. He has also worked to uncork supply chains at ports and in the trucking industry.
Biden has already announced plans to release 180 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and has worked to battle consolidation in the agriculture industry to bring down food prices.
The White House has also repeatedly pointed to policies included in the Build Back Better package that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) killed late last year ― giving Medicare the power to negotiate prescription drug costs, providing subsidies for child care ― as possible solutions. But the chances of resurrecting portions of the package remain somewhere between nonexistent and murky.
Kildee, for his part, says the government should suspend the gas tax and allow a higher blend of ethanol in gasoline during the summer months. “Not everyone agrees with me on that,” he quickly added.
There was little unanimity among House Democrats on the issue. Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas pointed to the child care and prescription drug negotiation provisions in the Build Back Better package.
“Maybe the larger package is dead, but there are still aspects of that legislation that would reduce costs for the American public,” Escobar said. “Obstructionists keep standing in our way, and I hope the public sees who’s working to bring over those ideas and who’s standing in the way of those ideas and only complaining.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia moderate who represents a military-heavy district, said Democrats needed to be “very empathetic and understanding” when asked about inflation, but her only proposal was to further increase the nation’s defense budget. “I think this administration’s defense budget is wholly insufficient,” she said.
Lawrence Summers, the former treasury secretary who predicted inflation problems, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the tax provisions of the Build Back Better plan, along with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve release, were helpful. But he said there was more Congress and the administration could do.
“I think it’s a time when we need to be looking at tariff reduction, because potentially that could take a percentage point off of the CPI,” he said, referring to the consumer price index, the main measure of inflation. “I think we need to look wherever we can at buying things more inexpensively when the federal government is purchasing. We need to look at immigration flows so as to address this labor shortage. But it’s not going to be easy, starting from where we are.”
Summers said the Federal Reserve would have to do most of the work to curb inflation, and he emphasized that the risk of a recession was real.
The inflation problem hits almost every major Democratic group and could particularly damage the party’s standing with senior citizens, who are often on a fixed income, and with Black voters, who tend to be in lower income brackets.
“Across the board, people say rising costs are a top concern,” Margie Omero, a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO Strategies, told reporters last week.
Omero was one of four bipartisan pollsters who worked on an AARP poll of voters older than 50, focusing especially on women. Women over 50 make up a disproportionate amount of the shrinking number of ticket-splitting voters, and just 17% of them said they had made a final decision on who to vote for in 2022.
“That’s stunning. These voters are voting. They’re paying attention. They’re listening. They’re not liking what they’re hearing, and they are much, much more volatile than conventional wisdom would have,” said Christine Matthews, the president of Bellwether Research. “I don’t think answers from either party are loud or clear or definitive enough for these voters.”
Polling shows voters do accept some of the Democratic narratives about inflation, including the White House’s label of “Putin’s price hike” and efforts to pin the high prices on greedy oil companies eager to hike prices when the price of crude rises, but who won’t cut prices when it drops.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday found 71% of Americans blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for higher gas prices, while 68% blamed oil and gas companies, compared with just 51% who blamed Biden and 52% who blamed Democrats. Still, just 33% blamed Republicans.
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.