Inflation is rapidly becoming a problem for the Democratic party and President Joe Biden. They need to get a grip on it before it imperils their wider agenda and sinks their chances of keeping control of Congress in the midterm elections next year. As they think about how to address it, one thing is certain: what they’ve been doing so far isn’t working. A recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how Biden is handling inflation, and the same number consider the issue “very important” in their evaluations of his presidency. Among those Americans concerned about the state of the economy, nearly nine in 10 ranked inflation as a reason why. Clearly something has to change.
But inflation, a complicated product of economics and mass psychology, is also devilishly difficult to understand, and even more difficult to control. Presidents have few tools to tame it, and the ones they do have can backfire. The inflation of the 1970s crippled Gerald Ford’s presidency and was doing the same to Jimmy Carter until he opted for an extreme cure – installing a chair of the Federal Reserve who dramatically raised interest rates, stopping inflation but also plunging the economy into a deep recession which handed the White House to Ronald Reagan. These experiences left inflation with a reputation as a presidency-killer, with either the disease itself or the medicine taken to combat it ultimately killing the patient.
Despite this, Democratic party elites have been slow to take the latest round of inflation as seriously as they should. American policymakers have not had to deal with levels of inflation as high as this for 30 years, and it shows. Many latched on to the message that inflation was “transitory”, a temporary consequence of the economy revving back into high gear as the country emerged from the coronavirus pandemic. Some liberals have even lashed out at those warning about rising prices, characterizing their concerns as an attempt to undermine support for Democrats’ plans to spend more to advance social welfare and combat climate change.
Whatever the economic merits of the argument – and many economists still expect inflation to start falling soon – this response has been politically toxic. Democrats risk appearing out of touch on an issue of profound concern to many Americans. In order to change tack, they need to communicate to voters that they feel their pain and that they’re fighting to make things better.
There are already signs that Democrats from the president on down are starting to get it. Biden recently gave a speech on the topic and announced the release of 50m barrels of oil from the US strategic petroleum reserve, an attempt to bring down gas prices at the pump. He also pointed the finger at oil companies for charging consumers high prices even as the wholesale price of oil has dropped over the past few weeks.
But Democrats should also be doing more to point the finger at the businesses who are helping to foment the problem. The Wall Street Journal reports that companies in many different sectors are using this inflationary spike as a cover to raise prices faster than their costs, essentially betting that consumers won’t object when they already see prices rising all around them. According to the report, nearly two out of three big, publicly traded US companies have seen larger profit margins this year than in the same period in 2019. Inflation might be hurting consumers, but it’s a boom year for corporate America.
Democrats should consider holding congressional hearings to name and shame particularly egregious price-gougers
Democrats ought to use all the tools of government to highlight and combat these abuses. As Biden has been finding out, public anger over inflation tends to be directed towards the incumbent president – and the only way to survive might be to redirect it at a more appropriate target. The presidential bully pulpit can be used to highlight corporate abuses and regulatory investigations, such as the one already announced by the FTC into the oil and gas sector, can hold industries to account and combat potentially illegal practices. Nor should Democrats stop there. They control both houses of Congress and should consider holding congressional hearings to name and shame particularly egregious price-gougers.
Whether any of these measures will actually serve to lower prices is an open question. But the only responsible thing to do is try. Corporate price rises risk kicking off an inflationary spiral in which the initial reasons for rising prices become secondary to a general feeding frenzy, and anything that can be done to discourage it is healthy. Administration actions might also serve to dampen consumers’ expectations of future inflation, which will reduce the risk of a spiral. Because the media narrative is driven by inflation that has already happened, reassurance remains important even after prices have begun to stabilize.
But even if we shouldn’t hold our breath for these actions to actually slow the rate of price increases, it’s important to show leadership on this issue for the simple reason that it’s what worried voters want and deserve. To be seen to be acting and pointing a finger at those to blame is smart politics, especially if this bout of inflation does indeed prove to be transitory and prices begin to fall next year.
Meanwhile, corporate America has to decide if it really wants to undermine the Democrats and risk handing stewardship of the economy back to the party of Donald Trump. With the modern Republican party increasingly the party of incompetence and ignorance, self-restraint might be the better option. As Democrats should seek to remind the price-gougers, profiting less now will help everyone mightily down the road.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University, and host of the podcast America Explained