Joe Biden has an inflation problem. On Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report finding that the consumer price index had jumped 6.2 percent in October, the largest increase since George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Gas prices have climbed more than 12 percent in the last month and nearly 60 percent this year; food and energy costs have also skyrocketed. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that two-thirds of Americans thought that inflation was a “big concern.” That shouldn’t be surprising: Inflation is rising faster than wages, a potentially nuclear political situation. Amid all of this, we are also in the midst of a global supply chain crisis, the effects of which may only worsen as the holidays get near.
And yet, despite these headwinds, there is a significant amount of economic good news right now. The labor market is tight—nearly three-quarters of adults think now is a good time to look for a job, per a recent Gallup survey—and the economy is growing at a rate estimated to be near 6 percent, a staggering figure compared to recent years, albeit one that is not particularly surprising, given the fact that we are still plowing out of the pandemic’s economic clutches. The unemployment rate sits at 4.6 percent. The stock market continues to soar. Yesterday, in a piece about the good economic news out there, Axios reported that “50% of the population now has more than $3 trillion in household wealth—up 32% just in the first half of this year, and up 55% from before the pandemic.”
All of this creates a strange situation for the Biden administration. The economy is, in many ways, historically very good. It is also, in a couple of specific ways that people feel viscerally—rising costs and supply chain disruptions—not good at all. This is not an ideal environment for political messaging. Needles must be threaded: People do not like to be told that everything is hunky-dory when their gas prices have gone up by more than 50 percent in a calendar year and they’re worried about Christmas presents being delivered on time. And yet the response to this dilemma from many officials has been to say nothing at all, ceding the economic argument to Republicans and their allies in conservative media who are relentlessly hounding the administration for failing to control inflation.
That Democrats haven’t taken up the fight isn’t entirely impossible to understand. After months of infighting, House Democrats delivered the president one big win this week, when they passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that had been languishing in the body while the party worked to get everyone on board with the Build Back Better Act—the social provision side of the Biden agenda. That measure remains uncompleted and facing a slew of remaining obstacles.
These two bills, though historic in many ways, are also a product of a slightly different moment: They emerged out of a spring in which many thought the country would soon be returning to normalcy. Instead, the pandemic is still producing new Covid-19 cases, at the same rate as in February. And these concerns over inflation and the global supply chain have jumped in front of earlier Democratic priorities. Indeed, many on the right flank of the Democratic Party in the House and Senate appear to be using those concerns as a pretext to further diminish, or perhaps even scuttle, the Build Back Better Act. Cultural issues, particularly the way American history is being taught in schools, have meanwhile dominated the handful of political races that have happened this year, further distracting from the economic good news.
Passing the rest of Biden’s agenda would certainly clear some runway to start selling its economic value to American workers. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Maloney recently told The New York Times, “My message is ‘free Joe Biden.’ That campaign needs to start now before the next crisis takes over the news cycle.” Bound up in delicate and often distracting congressional negotiations, Biden has largely stayed in Washington’s back rooms. This has, arguably, created a vicious cycle for his popularity: He is kept away from the public because he is currently unpopular, but that distance is also helping to drive the perception that he’s asleep at the wheel.
The Biden administration could nevertheless go on offense, touting the ways in which its policies have not only made the economy stronger but have tilted the balance to a historic degree in favor of workers. Much of this argument remains dependent on whether the Build Back Better Act is enacted. But even in its absence, a strong case remains to be made that changes at the Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission have made the labor market more competitive and fair. Nearly six million jobs have been added to the labor market so far; wages are growing significantly, even if they are only keeping place with inflation.
This may not be enough to counter the relentless fixation on inflation, which has received far more coverage than other indicators, despite the fact that these setbacks were widely predicted and, even now, is only slightly outpacing projections. But this only underpins the need for the Biden administration to mount the case that, in the aggregate, the administration has been good for workers. If the White House needs to take a “warts and all” approach to highlighting the economic landscape, so much the better—there are political dividends that come from shooting straight with the American people, and an opportunity for Biden to speak candidly about the ongoing efforts to lower inflation, fix the global supply chain, and end the pandemic. To be similarly candid, there may not be enough time to mount an effective argument that forestalls next year’s expected Democratic bloodbath in the midterms. But there is more than enough time to make the case before the next presidential election. Indeed, Biden’s reelection may depend on it.