By JOSH BOAK, ZEKE MILLER and CHRIS MEGERIAN – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven months before he faces a critical test from voters in the midterm elections, President Joe Biden is focused on questions around the kitchen table as he struggles to get credit for a recovering economy.
Since Biden took office last year, job growth has been strong and steady — he told the country on Friday after the March jobs report showed 431,000 new jobs had been added and the unemployment rate had fallen to a low 3.6%. But those same remarks were also tempered by his realization that food and gas prices are too high and inflation is at its worst in a generation.
For Biden, Americans’ belief in progress in economic recovery serves only as a stark reminder of how much further the country needs to go.
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“Our economy has gone from recovery to movement,” Biden said, though he admitted Americans are not ready for a winning streak. “I know this work is not over yet: we need to do more to get prices under control.”
At times, Biden’s two-part message — like the state of the economy itself — can seem like a jumble of contradictions. It leaves voters to form their own opinion – possibly at the president’s political peril.
For example, record wage increases of 5.6% last year contrast with consumer prices which have risen by 7.9% annually. Biden’s announcement last week that he would release one million barrels of oil a day from the US Strategic Reserve for the next six months was an acknowledgment of the damage inflation can do not only to the economy but also to his own political ambitions.
Economic dissatisfaction is reflected in Biden’s standing in opinion polls.
About 7 in 10 people in the United States describe the economy as in bad shape, while nearly two-thirds disapprove of Biden’s economic leadership, according to a March poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Administration officials and Biden allies like to point to the job creation data as a sign of achievement, but are also concerned about the ongoing economic malaise threatening him in an interim year with a historically inhospitable environment for a president’s party.
They have advised Biden to put a spotlight on his work to cut gas prices and forthcoming efforts to stem a surge in food prices due to the war raging in the world’s breadbasket in Ukraine.
The administration also wants to highlight broader access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and Medicare with an event Tuesday featuring Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama. The White House says Biden will “take additional action to further strengthen the ACA and save families hundreds of dollars a month on their health care.”
It’s not just the family budget he’s targeting. Biden’s latest message to voters is that he can also take control of the nation’s finances.
Its annual budget request highlighted a $1 trillion deficit reduction over 10 years, an attempt to claim the mantle of fiscal steward even if the reduction is offset by the phasing out of COVID-19 relief programs that are no longer needed and A new plan was pushed for a minimum tax for the nation’s billionaires.
“Responsible tax accountability is always a priority for voters,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who advised Biden’s 2020 campaign. “I think people want tax accountability. And I don’t think that’s changed over the years.”
Biden’s aides also hope he can spend more time focusing on other ways the government is working to effect tangible change in people’s lives, with infrastructure investments and the improving economy.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, said there seemed to be a “disconnection” between Biden’s legislative accomplishments and his handling of the war in Ukraine and public understanding.
“I realize midterms are always difficult for the party in power, of course, but we have a great story to tell,” she told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “There’s a lot of good work to be done on the board, and Democrats in and out of office need to do a better job of making their case.”
Rep. Annie Kuster, DN.H., said Wednesday after meeting Biden that his messages over the past month were clearly aimed at moderate voters.
“The State of the Union has been spot on in terms of what voters in our districts, the purple districts, are talking about right now,” she said outside the White House. Noting Biden’s pivot to address post-pandemic mental health issues, she stressed that the president plans to take care of infrastructure and job creation.
Voters have interpreted the pandemic, recession, burst in government spending, rapid recovery and subsequent inflation with a sense of pessimism.
The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Poll included a partisan breakdown of the numbers showing growing concerns among Democrats that Biden will need to challenge in 2022. Democrats’ expectations for the economy have fallen since July, while independents’ expectations for the economy have fallen to their lowest level since 2008, when the country was mired in the Great Recession.
Oil and gasoline prices were a driver of this skepticism. Crude oil prices started the year at around $76 a barrel, rose to around $124 on March 8 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and appeared to settle just below $100 on Friday after Biden announced reserve release.
Desmond Lachman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the market reaction to Biden’s oil release “muted” and noted that “in the short term we are subject to the vagaries of external developments like the Russian invasion.”
University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, whose work is separate from the sentiment survey, noted that there is evidence that the public’s perception of inflation may be worse than actual inflation. That’s because gasoline, groceries, and other items where prices are openly displayed are the main drivers of higher prices, potentially giving inflation an outsized psychological impact.
Wolfers has done scholarly work on the impact of oil prices on the gubernatorial election, but noted that historical comparisons may not work after the financial and cultural impact of a pandemic that has shaken expectations.
“If I were Biden, I would use a version of ‘better off than four years ago,'” Wolfers said. He said voters needed to remember June 2020, when the world was gripped by the pandemic, the government provided misleading information about the pandemic, the economy was terrible and “you didn’t know if you were going to die either.”
“How do you feel now? That would be the argument,” he said.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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