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Opinion Democrats are working through the five stages of inflation grief

President Biden speaks on lowering costs for consumers at Green River College in Auburn, Wash., on April 22. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Democrats are working through the five stages of grief when it comes to inflation — and, by extension, their midterm prospects.

On some economic metrics, Democrats have much to celebrate heading into the midterms. The U.S. economy will likely soon recover all the jobs lost during the pandemic recession, for example, besting forecasts from early 2021. Yet an abundance of jobs is less impressive to voters when even rising wages fall behind the soaring cost of living.

Recent polls show President Biden deeply underwater on his handling of the economy and inflation. Americans trust Republicans more on both — even though Republicans have offered little in the way of a plan to reduce inflation. Shouting “Socialism!” over and over doesn’t count.

But Republicans have at least been acknowledging the problem exists, and that it has unsettled voters, for far longer than Democrats have.

Until quite recently, Democrats were in denial — the first stage of grief, per pop-psychology tropes — that inflation presented a serious concern economically or politically.

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For months, politicians and left-wing commentators mocked media coverage about how regular people experienced or perceived rising prices. They argued that inflation concerns were exaggerated by Republicans and Fox News to distract from the job-market boom.

White House officials reportedly shrugged off internal polling memos last spring finding that “nearly nine in 10 registered voters are also concerned about increasing inflation.”

To be fair to Biden officials: In the first half of 2021, it wasn’t unusual to assume that inflation could fade on its own as the economy reopened and supply chains untangled themselves. Most professional forecasters and economic commentators (myself included!) expected something along these lines to happen.

But as the year wore on, supply remained severely constrained, and consumer demand remained red-hot, in part thanks to expansionary fiscal and monetary policy. Key inflation measures continued rising. It became harder to continue calling inflation merely “transitory.”

Biden began telling voters he felt their pain, and he issued some (largely symbolic) measures that he said would bring down prices. A requested antitrust probe here, a Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil release there. Maybe the occasional announcement about extended port hours.

But the administration dragged its feet in deploying what modest tools it had available to actually combat high prices and bottlenecks — such as removing Trump-era tariffs, processing backlogged immigration applications and work permits, or even naming Federal Reserve nominees to vacant slots.

If inflation would soon fade on its own anyway, the administration might have thought, there was little urgency to take serious action.

By late fall and early winter, the party graduated to the next grieving stage: anger.

Democrats stopped denying inflation was real. They moved on to righteous fury. The problem, they declared, wasn’t that policymakers had run the economy a little too hot — nor even that we’d been struck by some unlucky supply shocks.

It was that heinous villain Corporate Greed at work.

Rapacious oil companies and other megacorporations had suddenly decided to jack up prices, Democrats said. Why these companies had never decided to exercise this power before — say, during the early months of the pandemic, when profits plunged and oil briefly went negative — remained unexplained. Nothing to do with consumer demand plummeting then or rocketing now. Of course not.

No, Corporate America had just gotten mysteriously grabby. Enraged Democrats vowed retribution in the form of taxes, antitrust enforcement, any means necessary.

Democrats are still pushing some punitive (and arguably counterproductive) measures. But lately some have also adopted the next stage of grief: bargaining.

Maybe Biden and his fellow Democrats can win back some economic favorability points, and be seen as helping struggling families afford the rising cost of living, if only he forgives most or all student debt. Pretty please? Maybe? So Democrats plead with voters, and Biden surrogates argue on TV.

Never mind that poorly targeted student debt forgiveness might accidentally increase inflationary pressures. Or that the politics of a broad-based debt jubilee are not an obvious slam-dunk.

Maybe Democrats could revive some crowd-pleasing portion of Build Back Better. Or they could pretend Donald Trump is already back on the ballot again. Would any of those measures persuade voters to forgive them any flaws in the economy? At this point, it seems unlikely, at least if price pressures continue.

According to the usual taxonomy, two stages of grief remain. The next, depression, seems to be already creeping up on some Democrats, as they openly despair over the darkening economic outlook and what it portends for their midterm chances.

Acceptance of those election results might not be far behind.