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Biden’s inflation problem, in stark relief

Many polls were conducted around Biden’s one-year anniversary as president; one stood out when it comes to what lies ahead

Inflation is causing rising prices at the gas station and grocery store. Experts explain what is causing inflation and how long it might stick around. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)
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It’s been a popular week for polls, with everyone wanting to gauge where things stand at the one-year mark for President Biden.

But at the end of the week, one poll in particular stands out when it comes to the challenges that lie ahead for Biden. Its subject: inflation.

Since last spring, Biden and his administration have gradually shifted away from their initial posture of downplaying inflation. They had argued repeatedly, for months, that it was a “transitory” effect of the coronavirus pandemic. But they have come to increasingly acknowledge that it’s a major and persistent problem that hasn’t gone away as quickly as they had hoped or wished.

Biden referenced the inflation problem repeatedly at his news conference on Wednesday — shortly after data showed it hitting the highest level in 40 years — and on Friday, he played up the need for investing in more computer chips as a key way to combat supply-chain troubles.

A poll from CBS News and YouGov reinforced the stakes of all of this.

While inflation has been a persistent concern for Americans dating back to the spring, the poll showed it taking clear preeminence over other issues both in terms of importance and negative reviews of Biden.

Asked to rate Biden on a series of issues, no issue earned him worse marks than inflation, where just 30 percent approved of him and 70 percent disapproved. Those numbers were significantly worse than his numbers on perhaps the two issues that most dogged him in his first year in office: Afghanistan (38 percent approval) and immigration (36 percent).

Similarly, voters laid this problem at his feet more than other issues. Fully 58 percent said his policies were making inflation worse, while 12 percent said they were making it better. Even Democrats said by a 31-to-23 margin that Biden’s policies were making inflation worse rather than better.

That number was notably worse for Biden than a Fox Business poll last month, which showed 22 percent thought the administration’s policies were helping on inflation, while 47 percent said they were hurting. A negative-25-point split in that poll is now a negative-46-point split in the new one. On only one other issue in the YouGov poll did a majority of voters say they believe Biden’s policies were making things worse, and it’s a related one: the economy (52 percent).

Voters also faulted Biden for his lack of attention to this issue more than on other ones. Nearly two-thirds of people — 65 percent — said he was not paying the issue enough attention. Even 4 in 10 Democrats agreed.

Indeed, the poll suggested repeatedly that the administration would do well to make this a focal point. Seven in 10 people said getting inflation down would improve their views of Biden — including 35 percent who said it would improve their views of him “a lot.”

It’s probably not surprising that more Americans would credit him for reducing inflation than, say, passing his “Build Back Better” social-spending bill (29 percent say it would improve their views of him “a lot”) or his voting-rights bill (31 percent). While these things are relatively popular (especially the former), they’re not things conservative Americans are clamoring for. By contrast, pretty much everyone can agree that reducing inflation would be a good thing and might credit him accordingly.

But even Democrats place inflation right up there with Build Back Better and the voting-rights bill in terms of what would improve their views of Biden. In each case, at least 50 percent say it would improve their views of him “a lot,” and about 8 in 10 say it would improve their views of him at least somewhat.

Of course, therein lies the problem. Much as a president often can’t do much about things such as gas prices, inflation is an extremely complex problem to solve. It’s not just a matter of making it a priority or passing some kind of relief package or changing specific laws. Even with his increasing focus on the issue, Biden this week emphasized that inflation is generally an issue for the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy and interest rates. (The subtext: “My hands are kind of tied.”)

In addition to playing up increasing computer chip production, Biden has pitched Build Back Better as a potential remedy, including on Wednesday. But while that package has polled well, the Fox Business poll showed voters don’t agree that it will do what Biden suggests on inflation. Just 21 percent thought it would help lower inflation, while more than twice as many — 46 percent — thought it would actually make it worse.

In other words, if he thinks this will show people he is taking the problem seriously, he’s got a tough sales pitch ahead.