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Biden grapples with inflation and immigration

After several days spent facing a diplomatic spat on democracy in Latin America, Biden confronted domestic crises over inflation and immigration.

President Biden speaks on inflation and the economy aboard the USS Iowa at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — President Biden laced into oil corporations and shipping conglomerates on Friday, accusing them of chasing excessive profits instead of lowering prices for consumers, adopting a newly aggressive populist tone after he and his administration found themselves battered by another disheartening inflation report.

Later, Biden linked arms with a slew of foreign leaders as they vowed to make conditions for migrants throughout the Americas more safe and humane, while stressing his administration’s efforts to crack down on the smuggling of those who are coming to the southern U.S. border in hopes of entering the country

Biden’s events and rhetoric Friday during the Summit of the Americas — a semiregular gathering of Western Hemisphere nations that the United States is hosting this year — shifted his focus from an international spat over democracy to vexing domestic issues that have dogged his presidency and helped drive down his approval ratings.

Friday’s event was staged at the Port of Los Angeles, allowing Biden to highlight his administration’s efforts to unclog supply chains that have delayed shipments and slowed the manufacturing of key consumer goods. He took an unusually combative tone against corporations — especially against oil and shipping companies — in an attempt to paint a portrait of corporate greed that was ultimately harming consumers.

“We’re going to make sure that everybody knows Exxon’s profits,” Biden said, noting that the massive oil company “made more money than God this year.”

He charged that oil companies are not taking full advantage of the leases they have on federal land. “They have 9,000 permits to drill. They’re not drilling. Why aren’t they drilling?” Biden asked. “Because they make more money not producing more oil. The price goes up, number one, and number two, the reason they’re not drilling is they’re buying back their own stock — which should be taxed, quite frankly — buying back their own stock and making no new investments.”

Oil companies have strongly denied that their actions are artificially driving up costs for Americans, saying prices at the pump are driven by sweeping global forces like the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

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In Washington this week, senior White House aides had sat down with chief executives of Exxon and Chevron, the latest in a regular series of meetings in recent months, according to a White House official. This week’s meetings were first reported by CNBC.

Biden also criticized shipping companies, suggesting that a virtual oligopoly in the industry had driven up prices for consumers. Nine major ocean shipping companies — dividing themselves into three consortia — have contributed to soaring costs of consumers, he said, calling on Congress to crack down on the foreign-owned shipping companies that Biden said brought in $190 billion in profits last year.

“Every once in a while, something you learn makes you viscerally angry — like, if you had the person in front of you, you’d want to pop them,” Biden said. “No, I really mean it.”

Biden’s tone reflected in part a growing frustration within the White House that the administration has been able to do little to slow the rise in the cost of gas, food and other goods, a trend that risks eclipsing the president’s message and badly hurting his party in the November congressional elections.

Behind the scenes, several prominent Democrats have been pushing to make attacks on the greed of oil and gas companies a centerpiece of the party’s message, in the hopes of making Democrats the party of fighting inflation by the midterms. They argue that the issue of gas prices needs to be reframed as a choice between Democratic support for proactive measures — like suspending the gas tax or prodding oil companies to drill on existing leases — and Republican opposition to taking action.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who runs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, circulated a white paper to her colleagues in the spring titled “Big Oil Price-Gouging Americans at the Pump,” with statistics showing the dramatic increase in company profits between the first quarters of 2019 and 2022.

“Oil and gas companies are padding their profits, and hardworking Americans are paying the price,” the document said. “Senate Democrats are committed to stopping oil companies from excessively increasing gas prices. Senate Republicans are committed to blocking legislation that would hold oil and gas companies accountable.”

Biden’s event Friday came as new figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that inflation reached 8.6 percent last month compared with a year earlier, contributing to the fastest hike in prices in the energy, housing and food sectors in four decades.

The rapid run-up in gas prices has become one of the most visceral ways people feel inflation in their daily lives and is emerging as a dominant policy and political problem for the Biden White House. As of Friday morning, the national average for a gallon of gas was $4.99, according to AAA.

In a written statement earlier Friday, the president acknowledged that inflation was not “coming down as shapely and as quickly as we must see.” As he has many times before, Biden named Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine as the prime trigger of rising prices, although inflation had started to dog the White House before the February incursion by Russia.

Later, Biden name-checked Putin three times during his speech at the Port of Los Angeles, as he highlighted his administration’s work to streamline supply chains and boasted of the improvements to American ports that is included in the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last November.

“I’m doing everything in my power to blunt Putin’s price hike and bring down the cost of gas and food,” Biden said, standing on the deck of the USS Iowa, a battleship that has been transformed into a museum.

Biden has said combating inflation is his chief domestic priority this year. But his additional focus on migration, on the final day of the Ninth Summit of the Americas, also highlighted the Biden administration’s efforts to reduce the number of migrants arriving at the southern border.

Crucially, the administration has grappled with how and when to end a Trump-era policy that has allowed the United States to turn away numerous would-be migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border under health restrictions related to the pandemic.

That policy, known as Title 42, remained in place after a federal judge in a ruling last month blocked the Biden administration from lifting it. The administration had planned to rescind the controversial policy on May 23, triggering protests from Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers that the nation could not handle the increase in asylum seekers that would materialize once Title 42 was removed.

On Friday, Biden sought a more welcoming tone, noting that a joint declaration signed by various nations at the Americas summit showed that “when migrants arrive on their doorstep, they can provide a place to stay, make sure migrants can see a doctor, they can find a place to work.”

At the same time, Biden underscored his efforts to go after smugglers.

“If you prey on desperate and vulnerable migrants for profit, we are coming for you,” Biden said. “We are coming after you.”

Kim reported from Washington. Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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