The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High prices, economic volatility resurface as threat to Democrats

In attempt to counter GOP criticism, Biden is seeking to call out Republicans and force a “choice” election

President Biden speaks Friday at the Volvo Group powertrain manufacturing facility in Hagerstown, Md. (Craig Hudson/Bloomberg News)

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — With a month to go before critical midterm elections, inflation continues to be a top issue for voters and a potential liability for the White House, denting the confidence many Democrats felt just days ago that abortion rights and other issues would power them to a strong electoral showing.

With Republicans re-energized in their efforts to link President Biden to rising prices, falling markets and growing recession fears, Biden has begun using presidential events to aggressively confront his Republican detractors over their own economic policies, in addition to touting the positive parts of his record and highlighting new manufacturing jobs around the country.

“Folks, when it comes to the next Congress, this isn’t a referendum; it’s a choice,” he said Friday during a speech at a Volvo plant in western Maryland. “It’s a choice between two very different ways of looking at the economy.”

Biden spoke just hours after the Labor Department reported that the economy added 263,000 jobs in September, bringing the unemployment rate to 3.5 percent and suggesting that the labor market is cooling but remains strong.

Biden called out Republican officials by name and accused them of rooting against prosperity. “Many of my Republican friends are basically arguing that good news for the economy is bad news for America,” he said.

Slowing labor market could be just the beginning

But even as the labor market continues to power along, other parts of the economy have been an intractable concern for much of Biden’s presidency, with chronically high inflation, supply chain problems, rising interest rates and a slowing housing market. As Biden spoke Friday, the stock market dropped precipitously on fears that the tight labor market would do little to bring down inflation.

The volatility has revived Democratic fears that November’s elections could be an expression of economic angst, even after a Supreme Court ruling that eliminated abortion rights and a series of investigations of former president Donald Trump dominated headlines over the summer.

As those issues have faded somewhat from the headlines, Republicans have sought to highlight the economic head winds, arguing that Biden’s policies are to blame for the rising prices and slowing growth. “Don’t be fooled by Biden’s words today,” tweeted Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) “The reality of Biden’s economy is that inflation is crushing Americans, real wages are plummeting, and gas prices are going up again.”

Donald Schneider, who served as a top aide to House Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, said the increasing cost of filling up the tank is putting the Biden administration’s energy policy under scrutiny “at the worst possible time” for Democrats.

“People are really dissatisfied with the economy, and voters are placing a ton of weight on inflation,” Schneider said. “This is the issue voters are most displeased with Biden about.”

The rise in gas prices accelerated after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a phenomenon that Biden was quick to label “Putin’s price hike,” but they dropped for nearly 100 consecutive days over the summer, giving Democrats some hope that inflation would fade as an issue.

But the trend has reversed over the past two weeks, as the cost of fuel has begun rising again.

Against that backdrop, the decision this week by a coalition of oil-producing nations led by Russia and Saudi Arabia to reduce production by 2 million barrels per day was an especially heavy blow. It has sparked concern among Biden’s aides that global energy costs will spike further, hitting Americans’ pocketbooks just as they prepare to cast votes in the midterm elections. The sting was sharper because Biden had visited Saudi Arabia in July, despite criticism of its human rights record, in an effort to improve U.S.-Saudi relations.

Biden, whose administration is now urgently looking for ways to blunt the impact of the production cut, has said he was disappointed by the move.

“I was able to bring gasoline down well over a dollar sixty, but it's inching up because of what the Russians and the Saudis just did,” Biden said Friday, before hinting that he was preparing a response. “I'm not finished with that yet.”

Analysis: The Democrats' gas price problem

The president did not announce any new measures for curbing gas prices in his speech, instead using his remarks to warn that the Republicans attacking him over inflation would worsen the economy if granted power.

He accused Republicans of supporting “trickle-down” policies, saying they would reverse job gains made under his presidency, offer tax breaks to the wealthy and target Social Security and Medicare for cuts. He also attacked GOP lawmakers who described his infrastructure legislation as “socialism” and then later sought funds from the bipartisan package for their districts.

“I didn't know there are that many socialist Republicans,” Biden quipped Friday, after calling out lawmakers by name and accusing them of flip-flopping on the infrastructure bill. “I was surprised to see so many socialists in the Republican caucus.”

The newly aggressive tone from the president comes as some Democrats have sounded the alarm about the upcoming midterm races, calling for Biden to take his economic message on the road. Biden has increased his travel this week in an attempt to showcase the economic impact of legislation he has signed, and he is expected to keep up a busy travel schedule in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 midterms.

On Thursday, Biden visited IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to tout a $20 billion investment that the company had announced. Last month, he traveled to New Albany, Ohio, to celebrate a new $20 billion Intel project that will include two giant semiconductor factories. In each case, Biden has touted the passage of his infrastructure and computer chip bills, and Democratic lawmakers have joined Biden at each stop.

On Friday, Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) spoke before Biden’s appearance in Hagerstown, calling on voters to be patient as much of the impact of the president’s legislative record might not be felt immediately.

“We don’t see the roads yet, we don’t see the broadband, we don’t see the lower health care costs, but that’s all coming,” he said. “It’s all coming in the next year, three years, five years.”

But the crucial congressional elections are taking place next month. That leaves Democrats with the challenge of convincing voters that GOP victories would be detrimental for the economy, even though polls have shown Republicans with a consistent advantage on economic issues.

Americans have been concerned about inflation since the spring, according to a monthly survey from Gallup. In September, 17 percent named inflation, or the high cost of living, as the country’s top problem, second only to poor governmental leadership at 22 percent. That figure has been largely consistent since April.

In contrast, abortion issues were cited by 4 percent of Americans as the country’s top problem, down from a high of 8 percent in July.

The potential resonance of the inflation issue, despite the strength of other parts of the economy, has not been lost on GOP candidates. Republicans have spent more than $120 million on ads related to inflation this year, more than triple the figure for Democrats, according to data from AdImpact, which tracks commercials across a wide range of races.

Those messages could find a receptive audience among voters who are bearing the brunt of the stubbornly high costs.

Joyce Fox, 43, was watching a Fox News segment about the Saudi-Russian decision to cut oil production when a reporter approached her outside the Westminster, Calif., motel where she is staying until she can get a place of her own. Sitting in the shade of a picnic table, Fox said she could barely afford her move across the country from Ohio last month.

In Ohio, she said, she paid about $3.50 a gallon. Then she stopped to fill up in Nevada, where average gas prices are more than $5.50 per gallon, second only to California.

“I realized I’ve got $50 left in my pocket,” said Fox, who was staying at the hotel with her two children. “How am I going to get home?”

She called her father, who sent her some money through Zelle. And she said she started crying as she finished the drive to Southern California — the place she grew up — when she got word she’d been approved for increased benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Fox worried that gas prices would spike even higher, and she blames the Biden administration’s energy policy. The rising cost at the pump is one of many reasons the staunch conservative says she will vote this fall for Republicans.

Even while they tout the passage of Democratic or bipartisan bills aimed at helping ordinary Americans — from the covid relief package to the infrastructure bill to a measure aimed at drug costs — Democrats are also working to communicate that they, too, understand the problems that inflation poses for consumers.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, said Friday he would be taking swift action to address the crisis in his state, where average fuel costs have spiked in recent days to about $6.39 per gallon.

“Gas prices are too high,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “23 million Californians will be receiving up to $1000 starting TOMORROW. This will be the largest state tax rebate in the country.”

The rising costs have prodded some Democrats to break with the president over economic policy. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) put distance between himself and national Democrats during a debate against Republican challenger Blake Masters on Thursday, saying he has told the president “he was wrong” about oil and gas policy.

In that debate, Masters dodged a question about election denialism by pivoting back to the economy.

“Is Joe Biden the legitimately elected president of the United States?” the moderator asked.

“Joe Biden’s absolutely the president,” responded Masters, who has baselessly denied election results. “I mean, my gosh, have you seen the gas prices lately?”

Greg Morton and Scott Clement contributed to this report.