This year, President Biden was in a private meeting discussing student debt forgiveness when the conversation turned to inflation, as it so often does these days.
“He said with everything he does, Republicans are going to attack him and use the word ‘inflation,'” said California Representative Tony Cárdenas, referring to Mr. Biden’s April meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Mr. Cárdenas stated that Mr. Biden was aware that he would be attacked over rising prices “regardless of the issue.”
The remark highlighted how today’s rapid price increases, the fastest since the 1980s, pose a clear political liability that hangs over every major policy decision made by the White House, putting Mr. Biden and his colleagues on the defensive as officials discover there is no good way to talk to voters about inflation.
The administration has splintered internally at times over how to discuss price increases, and it has revised its inflation-related message several times as talking points fail to resonate and new data arrives. Some Democrats in Congress have urged the White House to adopt a more proactive stance in the run-up to the November midterm elections.
However, the White House faces a difficult reality: there is little politicians can do to quickly bring price increases under control. The Federal Reserve’s policy is the primary solution to inflation in the United States, but the central bank tempers price increases by making money more expensive to borrow in order to cool off demand, a slow and potentially painful process for the economy.
Consumer prices rose 8.3 percent year on year through April, and May inflation is expected to be 8.2 percent, according to data released this week. In the five years preceding the pandemic, inflation averaged 1.6 percent annual gains, making today’s rate of increase painfully fast by comparison. A gallon of gasoline, one of the most visible household expenses, cost an average of $4.92 this week. Consumer confidence has plummeted as families pay more for everyday purchases and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to cool the economy, raising the risk of a recession.
The White House has long recognized that rising prices could undermine Mr. Biden’s support, as signaled by a series of confidential memos sent to Mr. Biden last year by one of his top pollsters, John Anzalone. According to a separate memo compiled by Mr. Anzalone’s team last month, inflation has only served to exacerbate voter frustration, with the president’s low approval rating on the economy rivaling only his approach to immigration.
When it became clear that rising costs would be permanent, administration officials began to disagree on how to frame the phenomenon. While it was clear that much of the price increase was due to supply chain shortages exacerbated by ongoing coronavirus outbreaks, some of it could also be attributed to strong consumer demand. That large amount of spending was made possible in part by the government’s stimulus packages, which included direct payments to households, expanded unemployment insurance, and other benefits.
The president and his top political advisers have pushed a few key talking points, including blaming President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for the “Putin price hike,” pointing to deficit reduction as a way to lower inflation, and arguing that Republicans have a bad plan to deal with rising costs. Mr. Biden has frequently acknowledged the pain caused by higher prices and has emphasized that the problem of taming inflation is largely in the hands of the Fed, an independent entity whose work he has promised not to interfere with.
According to an administration official, Mr. Biden and his top aides have grown increasingly concerned about the public’s negative views of the economy. Another person familiar with the discussions said that economists in the administration are less involved in setting the tone on issues like inflation than in previous White Houses.
So far, the talking points have done little to change public perception or to mollify concerns on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats are pushing for the White House to find a more compelling story.