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Biden changes his tone and walks a delicate line on inflation

Rising consumer prices have quickly become one of the White House’s most urgent concerns as Americans grow unsettled at the higher cost of goods — and place the blame on President Joe Biden.

The President has convened meeting after meeting of his top economic advisers to debate the matter, and aides now discuss multiple times per week how to address the supply chain crisis and shortages of goods that are driving up the cost of nearly everything.

In his public messaging, Biden has turned away from insisting inflation is only temporary, something he said repeatedly over the summer. Instead, he has frankly acknowledged that higher prices are obscuring the benefits — like jobs roaring back, wages rising and the stock market surging — of a post-pandemic boom.

“Inflation hurts (Americans’) pocketbooks, and reversing this trend is a top priority for me,” Biden said in a statement on Wednesday after the government reported consumer prices jumping last month. Over the past 12 months, prices climbed 6.2% — the biggest increase since November 1990.

His statement made no mention of the trend being “transitory,” a description employed by administration officials repeatedly as price concerns mounted.

Now, Biden and his team are steeling themselves for high inflation to persist into 2022 — posing a major political problem for Democrats ahead of next November’s midterm congressional elections. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has pointed to the “middle to end” of next year as when inflation rates may improve.

Even during moments of celebration, Biden can’t avoid the topic. During a signing ceremony next Monday for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden plans to tout the new law’s ability to “act against inflationary pressures,” the White House said.

As he moves to the next phase of his domestic agenda, higher inflation could complicate Biden’s effort to pass a nearly $2 trillion climate and social spending bill — even though he says that plan, too, would ease inflation in the long-run.

Biden changes his tone — and walks a delicate line

Visiting Baltimore on Wednesday, Biden sought to underscore the ways he is attempting to rein in supply chain issues that are partly to blame for higher prices. But he was frank in acknowledging the “most pressing economic concerns of the American people,” and sought to explain in detail the root causes of the problem.

“Consumer prices remain too high,” he said as the sun was setting over stacks of shipping containers and steadily rotating cranes. “The American people, in the midst of this economic crisis, the recovery is showing strong results but not to them. They’re still looking out there, everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more and it’s worrisome, even though wages are going up.”

“We still face challenges that we have to tackle,” Biden said. “We have to tackle them head-on.”

An unusual economic recovery has created a conundrum for Biden and his team. While he is eager to take credit for an improving economy, he also must highlight the remaining snags that are weighing down his political standing.

Biden remains acutely aware that pandemic-related factors continue to weigh on Americans’ everyday lives: gas prices are high, labor shortages persist and delivery of goods remains impacted by clogs in the global supply chain.

Ignoring them could make Biden appear out of touch with everyday struggles, some of his aides fear. The President has built an entire political career identifying with the economic hardships faced by working- and middle-class Americans.

Yet other Biden allies worry his attention on the negative has obscured the positive — to the determent of Democrats everywhere. They would like to see the President adopt a more assertive approach in claiming economic victory.

A fresh batch of numbers last week underscored the steady improvement in the economy. Numbers from the government showed employers accelerating their hiring, adding 531,000 jobs in October. As businesses compete for workers, hourly wages also increased 4.9%.

Yet the increase in prices due to consumer inflation makes it difficult for many families to notice an increase in pay. And with more money in pockets, demand is outpacing supply.

“With more people with money buying product and less product to buy, what happens?” Biden asked in Baltimore. “Prices go up.”

White House officials say Biden can hardly avoid talking about inflation and gas prices, given the centrality of those issues to Americans’ lives. Even while he traveled abroad last week, Biden put supply chain issues and energy prices at the center of his talks with foreign leaders.


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