The eye-popping figure released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — prices jumped 6.2 percent last month compared with October 2020, the biggest such leap in more than 30 years — confirmed what consumers already knew. Everything seems to cost more.
I’m not an economist, and I don’t even play one on television, so I won’t pretend to know definitively why prices are rising so sharply. The reason offered by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, whose responsibility it is to keep inflation under control, makes sense to me: Higher prices result mostly from pandemic-related disruptions in the supply chain and will eventually fall as goods begin flowing again.
Such explanations are no comfort, however, to families who find themselves paying more at the grocery store yet coming home with less food, or those facing a rent increase, or those who go to Target to buy the kids new shoes and decide the old ones will have to do for a while longer. Purchases of nonessential goods can be deferred, but the line between what is and is not essential shifts in the buy-it-now direction as the holiday season approaches.
And almost everyone has to buy gasoline. According to AAA, on Thursday, the nationwide average price for a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.42 — up from $2.12 a year ago. In practical terms, that means paying about $20 more to fill your tank. Which is kind of like having to take one of those hard-earned Andrew Jacksons out of your wallet, rip it into tiny pieces and toss them into the wind.
This is the kind of inflation that people really feel. And that makes them angry. And they want their leaders to do something about it.
Inflation is political poison, and gas prices are especially toxic for anyone who happens to be in power. Biden’s approval ratings have been slumping for a variety of reasons: the continuing impact of covid-19, the difficulty of getting his agenda through Congress, the decision of the Republican Party to obstruct rather than collaborate. The White House expects those polling numbers to improve as the administration racks up successes, including passage of the landmark $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The hope is that voters will be much happier next fall when the midterm elections roll around.
But inflation has the potential to spoil those plans, even if it proves to be transitory and prices do slowly begin to fall. Republicans, of course, are already on the attack. Biden cannot afford to give the impression of being passive and hapless on this pocketbook issue. Once such an image is etched into the public consciousness, it is awfully hard to erase.
The president can’t really do anything about the price of milk or meat. His efforts to clear the supply-chain logjams at major ports will help, but not immediately. One of the few actions he can take unilaterally, and with great fanfare, is releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with the announced aim of lowering gas prices.
Experts argue convincingly that the impact of such a move could be marginal, given the global nature of the oil market and the difficult logistics of transforming that reserve petroleum into increased supply of gasoline in the areas of the country where prices at the pump have risen most sharply. And it would send mixed messages, to say the least, at a time when the Biden administration is trying to shift the nation and the world away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy.
But, sometimes, the urgent has to take precedence over the important. All of Biden’s big plans depend on public support. To have any chance of keeping slim House and Senate majorities on the same page, much less maintaining those majorities in the midterms, Biden cannot afford to be seen as a president who is all talk but no action on inflation.
Opening the oil spigot would show voters that Biden doesn’t just feel their pain but also wants to ease it.