04:12 - Source: CNN
Inflation hits highest level in 40 years
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden had hoped that his Tuesday trip to Iowa might serve as a turning point, where he could refocus Americans’ attention on his domestic agenda – particularly his efforts to lower their fuel and household costs – a day after concentrating on gun violence with a crackdown on mail-order “ghost guns.”

Instead, before he had even stepped on the plane, the President was once again confronted by an avalanche of alarming news that encapsulated how his inability to solve the nation’s most pressing problems is deeply worrying to Democrats seven months before the midterm elections.

A day after promising that his administration’s new rules on “ghost guns” would “save lives, reduce crime and get more criminals off the streets,” Americans concerned about rising crime once again witnessed a terrifying mass shooting – this time in the New York City subway system. With gun violence now a daily occurrence, it was an event that reinforced how limited the tools are at Biden’s disposal as his efforts to advance major gun safety measures face a blockade in a deeply polarized Congress.

And while the Iowa trip, in theory, offered the President a chance to celebrate the bright spots in the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the dramatic drop in unemployment, he was dealt a blow by a crushing inflation report released Tuesday.

The report showed the Consumer Price Index had risen 8.5% for the year that ended in March, a level not seen since December 1981 – a testament to the fact that wages are not keeping up with inflation.

At a time when Americans are fuming about the soaring costs of everything from meat to fuel, that news – along with persistent warnings that the economy could enter a recession – vastly overshadowed the incremental measures that Biden announced Tuesday to address pocketbook concerns, which included an emergency waiver of a summer ethanol ban aimed at saving consumers 10 cents per gallon at the pump.

The GOP is already wielding inflation as a sledgehammer to weaken Democrats heading into the midterm elections as it argues that Biden and congressional Democrats aggravated the problem with the huge injection of pandemic-related stimulus funds into the economy in 2021.

And it was not just Republicans who laid blame on Biden Tuesday. Sen. Joe Manchin, who had refused to go along with Biden’s plans for more social safety net spending because of his concerns about inflation, said the new inflation data told a “chilling story” about how “hard earned wages and financial savings are disappearing faster every month as prices continue to climb.”

“The Federal Reserve and the Administration failed to act fast enough,” the West Virginia Democrat said in a statement Tuesday. “Instead of acting boldly, our elected leaders and the Federal Reserve continue to respond with half-measures and rhetorical failures searching for where to lay the blame.” One piece of the solution, he argued, was for Biden and members of Congress to adopt an “all-the-above” energy policy to lower the price of gasoline and energy in order to make America energy independent from Russia and “other terror-sponsoring countries.”

Biden seeks to shift blame to Putin for gas price hikes

Biden attempted to counter the criticism in Iowa on Tuesday by stating that he was “doing everything within my power by executive orders” to bring down prices and “address ‘the Putin price hike’” – his administration’s catchphrase for the way in which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices.

He insisted that the nation has already made progress since the March inflation data was collected: “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away,” Biden said, referencing the atrocities Putin’s army has committed in Ukraine. It was the first time the President had referred to the atrocities in Ukraine as a genocide, a term he’d previously avoided using.

Biden highlighted strong job growth as the pandemic has receded, as well as his administration’s moves to bring down prices, including the release of 1 million barrels of oil a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months and a new rule lifting the summertime ban on E15 gasoline, a blend of regular gasoline and ethanol, a plant-based fuel.

“It’s not going to solve all our problems, but it’s going to help some people,” Biden said, acknowledging that E15 is currently available at only a few thousand pumps. “I’m committed to (doing) whatever I can to help, even if it’s an extra buck or two in the pockets when they fill up.”

With a focus on rural America – even standing on a hay-covered stage to illustrate his message – Biden also touted improvements made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will shore up structurally deficient bridges, expand access to high-speed internet and “help connect entire towns and regions to new opportunities.”

He ended with a plea for optimism, noting that America is the only nation on Earth that has “come out of every major crisis stronger than when we went in,” and asked his audience to go out and help “spread the faith.”

A struggle to fulfill other campaign promises that affect Americans’ daily lives

But polls have consistently shown that many Americans do not share the President’s optimism at the moment and are likely to be in a punishing mood when they go to the polls in November.

While inflation and crime are their top concerns this election season, Biden continues to face frustrating challenges in other areas that he had pledged to fix, from America’s escalating crisis with drug overdose deaths to the unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic.

The President campaigned on a plan to end the opioid crisis, but the myriad crises of the past year have often eclipsed that issue. Tuesday brought a sobering new study in the medical journal JAMA showing that adolescent drug overdose deaths doubled in number from 2010 to 2021. Fentanyl, a stronger and faster-acting drug than natural opiates, was involved in more than 75% of those adolescent overdose deaths in 2021.

Annual drug overdose deaths also reached a record high in the 12-month period ending in October, with two-thirds of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to provisional data published last month by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. A short time later, Biden called for a $3.2 billion increase in funding for National Drug Control Program agencies – which included more money to reduce the supply of illicitly used drugs like fentanyl.

The White House had also hoped that the Covid-19 pandemic would be in the rearview mirror long before this point. But Biden is facing a mixed picture on that front as cases are rising again in 25 states, while falling in 16 and holding steady in nine others.

Though hospitalizations are far lower than they were at the peak of the crisis, the administration had to confront the resurgence of the virus as it spread among dozens of attendees at the recent Gridiron Club Dinner, including to several members of Biden’s Cabinet and key White House aides.

There was a glimmer of good news for the President in a new Axios-Ipsos poll that found that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans now describe Covid-19 as a crisis. About 3 in 4 called the state of the coronavirus a “manageable problem.”

But those views have raised concerns that more Americans may let their guard down even though the virus remains a threat. And Biden’s experience from last July Fourth – when he said he hoped the nation could soon celebrate independence from the pandemic – drove home the hard lesson that even amid a strong desire to turn the page, the President may always be one new variant away from being drawn back into an intractable crisis. It remains to be seen whether voters will give Biden the credit he seeks for progress in rolling back the pandemic – or how much that issue will even matter by the time the election rolls around.