April 13, 2024

The Prices Are Not Right

Inflation could sink Biden — if Republicans get their act together.

President Biden was in spin mode Wednesday when a reporter asked him to comment on data showing an uptick in the inflation rate. “We’re in a situation,” Biden said, “where we’re better situated than we were when we took office, where inflation was skyrocketing.”

Nonsense. When Biden became president in January 2021, the inflation rate was 1 percent. It began to rise shortly thereafter, spiked to 4 percent that April, and grew to a 40-year high of 9 percent in June 2022. Yes, the rate has come down since. But the 3.5 percent rate recorded in March is nowhere near the Federal Reserve’s target. And it suggests that inflation is not about to disappear.

Which terrifies Biden. Inflation is responsible for his dismal job approval numbers and poses the greatest risk to his presidency. Yet he may be able to overcome the challenge — if Republicans fail to persuade voters that their policies will stabilize prices and raise wages.

No one said politics is easy. The return of inflation arrived during Biden’s presidency and is a direct consequence of his policies. Yet inflation puts both Democrats and Republicans in a bind. Why? Because price increases reveal the inanity of liberal measures that subsidize demand while restricting supply. And because they highlight the reactive, scrambling, content-free character of many GOP campaigns.

Biden is not about to change direction. He will try to change the subject — to abortion rights, and to former president Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans. If misdirection fails, Biden will opt for deception. Note that he emphasized the inflation rate during his press conference. The rate has come down, Biden said. Great news. But the inflation rate is not his real problem.

Biden’s real problem is the price level. Inflation is cumulative. One price increase follows and adds to another. Since Biden moved into the White House, consumer prices are up some 19 percent overall. The only recent president who presided over a similar jump in prices was Jimmy Carter. He served one term.

This is what Trump was talking about when he asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. A cart of groceries that cost $100 under Trump now costs about $120. A gallon of gasoline that cost an average of $2.41 under Trump now costs $3.63. An apartment that rented for $1,600 a month now rents for $2,000. Interest rate hikes worsen the pain: The rate on a 30-year mortgage is currently 7.8 percent, contributing to the worst housing market since the early 1990s.

Such numbers explain why the 2024 election is neck-and-neck, and why voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on the economy. What the price level does not do, however, is guarantee a GOP victory in November. This is not a wild prediction. It’s a conclusion drawn from the past two years of election returns.

Look at the GOP’s performance. Inflation has been a part of our lives since the spring of 2021. That fall, Glenn Youngkin won election as Virginia’s governor and Republicans performed well in New Jersey and Nassau County, New York. Then Donald Trump began endorsing down-ballot candidates who shared his debunked views of the 2020 election. And on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the abortion issue to the political sphere.

The November 2022 election disappointed Republicans. They won their narrowest House majority in decades, while losing Senate seats and governors’ mansions. Democrats, moreover, have overperformed in special elections over the past year despite persistent inflation. The divide between terrible polling and pretty good election results is so stark that some Democrats say numbers don’t matter. “Historically, favorability and vote choice have been correlated,” Biden campaign official Jen O'Malley Dillon told the New Yorker last month. “I actually think that that’s no longer the case.”

She hopes so. And yet the idea that something in the polling is odd and Biden and the Democrats are stronger than they seem can’t be dismissed outright. True, the highly educated, affluent Democratic coalition may be tailor-made for special elections. If anti-Trump, anti-MAGA voters have been showing up consistently since 2021, what will stop them from showing up in 2024? Trump may have the advantage on more issues — inflation, crime, the border — but Biden’s issues of abortion rights and “protecting our democracy” might move more votes.

I’d have more confidence if Republicans advanced a positive and coherent economic message. But that may be asking too much. One of the former president’s rallying cries — “Better off with Trump” — successfully reminds voters of Donald Trump’s accomplishments. It’s fuzzy, though, on where he plans to take the country in a second term. So far, Trump says he will pardon the January 6 “hostages,” impose global tariffs, “never do anything that will jeopardize or hurt Social Security or Medicare,” and launch the “largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” Whatever you might say about these proposals, they won’t reduce inflation.

What will? Start by lifting the heavy hand of government. Unleash carbon energy development. Repeal regulations that hamper productivity, enterprise, and construction. Reform the tax code to help families with children and increase opportunities for productive investment. Slow down non-defense discretionary spending. Look for ways to introduce and expand competition and choice into America’s entitlement programs. Engage our allies with trade agreements that lower costs. And promote the rule of law that has long made the United States an attractive place for innovative business.

A forward-looking, specific agenda would define the conservative economic program and force Biden to play defense. Outrage and opposition have helped weaken Biden, for sure. But it will take a serious program of reform to overcome the spin, avoid distractions, and defeat him.

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. For more from the Free Beacon, sign up free of charge for the Morning Beacon email.

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