How Biden changed his tune on inflation as prices soared and the midterms loomed
When Jack Hunt walked out of the Forsyth County, Ga., elections office after casting his ballot, he had one primary concern on his mind — the economy.
“It’s ridiculous. The grocery stores, you go and some items are twice what they were before Biden’s administration took office,” the retired 71-year-old pilot said. “We need to get the inflation under control.”
Many Americans, like Hunt, are voting with their wallets in mind in the midterm elections. Polls consistently show the economy — and, specifically, inflation — is a top issue.
That’s why in this final stretch of the campaign, both parties have been trying to control the narrative to drive voter turnout, stoking fears about what the other party would do to the economy if it controls Congress.
For months, Republicans have hammered Democrats for being the party in power as inflation hit a four-decade high. More recently, Democrats have tried to spin those inflation allegations around and argue that Republicans will make inflation worse if they win big on Nov. 8.
President Biden has sought to cast the midterms as a choice between two economic visions, rather than a referendum on the economy under his watch. He has said the GOP intends to extend tax cuts for the rich, cut Social Security and repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping package that aims to boost clean energy production and lower some prescription drug costs.
“If they take control, they said their first aim is to get rid of the Inflation Reduction Act, and inflation’s going to go up, not down,” Biden warned as he campaigned in Oregon earlier this month.
This argument is the latest twist in White House messaging on inflation, a strategy that has evolved over many months as high prices persisted.
But messaging is not the main issue for the administration, said Larry Summers, an economist who worked in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Summers sounded early alarm bells on rising prices more than a year ago.
“We have a fairly serious inflation problem,” he told NPR in an interview. Curing that problem is likely to cause a recession, in his judgement.
“That reality is appreciated by the American people. It’s not really a communications problem that’s causing them to be unhappy and concerned about it. It’s a reality problem,” Summers said.
Biden first worried about economic collapse, not inflation
Joe Biden entered the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2021, worried about rising evictions, hunger and poverty. He was inheriting an economy shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and unemployment was still over 6%. And so that first day in the White House, Biden announced a massive $1.9 trillion aid package.
Summers warned in the Washington Post that it was too much money. Biden dismissed those concerns. The White House argued that the country was dealing with deep economic challenges, and the stimulus money was vital.
“The way I see it — the biggest risk is not going too big. It’s if we go too small,” Biden said.
So weeks later, Democrats lined up behind their president and passed his bill, the American Rescue Plan. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen hit the airwaves to tout the legislation, downplaying the risks of inflation.
The White House described it as ‘transitory’
By May 2021, inflation was creeping higher. But the White House insisted it was not a long-term problem.
“I expect all of this to be transitory, and I think the economy’s going to get back on track,” Yellen said at a Wall Street Journal event. “I don’t anticipate inflation is going to be a problem.”
This term — transitory — became the administration’s go-to answer to questions about rising prices.
And the president echoed his aides. “Our experts believe and the data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen are — were expected and expected to be temporary,” Biden said.
Meanwhile, Americans grew frustrated
In Northampton County, Pa. — a key swing county Biden narrowly won in his race for the White House — people didn’t necessarily know who they blamed for inflation during the summer of 2021.
But like Americans across the country, they were frustrated and wanted to see elected officials trying to fix it.
“Everything is very expensive right now. The food went up. Groceries went up. The gas. Insurance went up,” Nazirah Lewis told NPR at the time. The single mother of three said the paychecks from her job as a nurse weren’t going up even as prices did.
It was a period where Biden was insisting that price increases were the result of an economy roaring back to life after the pandemic. The White House kept telling Americans that other indicators showed the economy was strong, thanks in part to Biden’s COVID response and the Democrats’ pandemic aid package.
Some voters praised the $1,400 checks and expanded child tax credit that they had received from the rescue bill. But others were beginning to blame that relief for creating new economic problems.
At his Turkish restaurant in Lehigh Valley, Erdinc “Eddie” Uzun said Biden was “giving away money to people — it’s too many, too many.”
“My opinion is, cut off all the unemployment soon as you can to push the people back to work,” Uzun told NPR.
Bob Bast, a retired pastor in Pennsylvania who votes Republican, agreed in part with the White House explanation for inflation. “I think it’s part of maybe the pandemic, you know. Industry is trying to catch up, and things like that,” Bast told NPR at the time.
But Bast said he also felt like Biden’s policies were partly at fault. As inflation persisted, people’s partisan interpretations of the economy solidified.
The White House shifted into explanation mode
As inflation surpassed a 30-year high, the president began speaking more directly to people’s pain.
“Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more. And it’s worrisome, even though wages are going up,” Biden said in November at the Port of Baltimore. “COVID-19 has stretched global supply chains like never before. And suddenly, when you go to order a pair of sneakers or a bicycle or Christmas presents for the family, you’re met with higher prices and long delays, or they say they just don’t have any at all.”
Biden and his team had stopped using that obscure phrase “transitory” and were focusing more on why inflation was happening and what the president would do to help.
In retrospect, the phrase was too ambiguous, one of Biden’s top economic advisers told NPR in a recent interview. “It turned out that ‘temporary,’ or ‘transitory,’ I think was insufficiently specific, time-wise,” said Jared Bernstein with the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
“No one was able to pinpoint the timing, in no small part because there were events that occurred that no one foresaw,” Bernstein said.
The White House was spending a lot of time talking about supply chains and semiconductors. The administration was also trying to explain that prices were rising around the globe, and that America was doing better than most.
As Biden wrapped up his first year in office, his team focused on record job gains, unprecedented wage improvements for low-income workers and GDP growth not seen in decades.
To be sure, the independent Federal Reserve holds most of the power for addressing inflation, and has been hiking up interest rates to try to tame it. But polls showed Americans were deeply cynical over the president’s handling of the economy.
Still, the administration was optimistic the problems would ease before the midterms. Treasury Secretary Yellen told NPR’s Morning Edition that she expected to see inflation rates adjust down to the normal 2% level “sometime during the second half” of 2022.
“I think it’s the peak of the crisis,” Biden told reporters in December of 2021.
‘Putin’s price hike’ became a new foil
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, gas prices soared, feeding the inflation problem. Biden began blaming “Putin’s price hike” for spiking gas prices, along with supply chain snafus and greedy corporations.
As the president repeatedly said his top priority was getting prices under control, his approval ratings were stuck underwater. Surveys showed Americans were deeply anxious about rising prices.
The concern was bipartisan, but the culprit had now become more clearly partisan.
Even as gas prices began to drop in some places, Republicans blamed Biden. In April, as retired concrete contractor Garfield Bowman filled up his Subaru at a Meijer gas station in South Lansing, Mich., he complained gas prices were “extremely too high.” Like many Republicans who NPR has interviewed over the past year, Bowman blamed Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline for high gas prices. It’s a claim fact checkers have debunked.
In Brighton, Mich., school bus driver Tom Moran said he didn’t think it was Biden’s fault, and praised him for releasing an unprecedented amount of oil from emergency reserves to try to temper gas prices.
“I think I think it’s a supply chain thing happened because of COVID, because oil companies cut back on production because people weren’t driving as much,” Moran said.
Inflation finally improved, but voters didn’t feel it
In August, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggested inflation was finally leveling off. Biden saw a moment for optimism. “Today, we received news that our economy had zero percent inflation,” Biden said the day the data was released. “Zero percent.”
It was a true, but misleading statement for many Americans still feeling the higher costs. “When my mother went through the Depression — that’s what I feel like now,” Liz Masterman, 72, told NPR in July as she walked into a food pantry in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Gas prices had dropped, but food, rent and utility prices had not. And prices were still much higher than they had been before the pandemic. Some metro regions, like the area around Tampa, Fla., were still experiencing double-digit inflation, driven by housing costs.
“It’s like you can’t do anything fun with the kids or with family, ’cause the only money you have is really for bills,” said Christina Willette, a certified nursing assistant in Florida making $15 per hour. The rent on her two-bedroom apartment was more than $600 per month more than it had been a couple of years ago.
Both Masterman and Willette had supported Biden in his race against former President Donald Trump. But they still felt like he could be doing more to help with rising costs.
Biden’s closing argument taps into recession fears
As Democrats hit the campaign trail, they pointed to the package of legislative priorities that they had packaged together and branded as the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Democrats are lowering your everyday costs like prescription drugs, health care premiums, energy bills and gas prices,” Biden told supporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters this month.
Many Democratic voters have said they’re not voting on the economy in these midterms. They’re motivated by issues such as access to abortion, and safeguarding democracy.
“Our economy is cyclical,” said Richard Johnson, 59, outside a voting site in Alpharetta, Ga. “The most important thing is the threat to democracy in this country right now.”
There are some signs that some of Biden’s explanatory messaging has broken through to more independent-minded voters. In Georgia, Lillian Pinot and Jose Berrizbeitia said were willing to cross party lines and vote for one Democrat on the ticket — and were not convinced Biden was to blame for inflation.
“We blame nobody, because it’s everywhere. It’s not only in the United States, it’s worldwide … Europe, South America, Asia,” said Berrizbeitia. “People just like to blame someone,” Pinot added.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Biden has focused on an argument that Republicans will make inflation worse if they win, an 11th-hour scramble to reframe an economic storyline with the hopes of winning over a few more independent voters.
But many Americans had already begun voting in the midterms, and their assessment of the economy is no longer malleable.
“Our 401(k)s are down by 25-35% … so you can only draw some correlation to what’s going on today to what’s happened politically over the last 18, 20 months,” Darrell Sheets told NPR after he voted for Republicans up and down the ballot in Georgia.
But self-described fiscal conservative Dale Jordan said he voted for a third-party candidate for the Senate. He said he didn’t think the Republican candidate, former football running back Herschel Walker, was qualified for the job. And while he said he’s “OK with some liberal stuff,” he did not want to see incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock reelected either.
He said he was deeply disappointed with how Democrats have handled the economy.
“When I’m paying for a family of four, going to the grocery store, and it’s almost $400 for groceries at times — that’s not acceptable,” Jordan said.
NPR’s Lexie Schapitl and Jasper Ruppert contributed to this report.