Education & Tech

Opinion | Biden’s economy is extraordinary. But inflation is still the Achilles’ heel of Democrats.

In a remarkably short period of time — far sooner than virtually all respected prognosticators expected — the United States has recaptured nearly all (93 percent) of jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic. President Biden on Friday touted the “fastest decline in unemployment to start a president’s term ever recorded.” In addition, wages went up an impressive 5.6 percent in the last year, allowing Biden to declared that “we’re the only country in the world that’s coming out of crises stronger than we went into them. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Not all is rosy, however. Wages have surged, but inflation is rising faster. In February, prices were 7.9 percent higher than a year prior. That means the vast majority of Americans who never lost their jobs during the pandemic may be in a worse position now than before the economy tanked. Couple that with an almost daily reminder that the cost of food, gas, housing and most everything else has gone up, and it’s easy to understand why so many people think the state of the economy is poor despite record-level job creation.

While Republicans like to blame the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for inflation, that alone did not overheat our $25 trillion economy. If we want to play the blame game, we should start with the Federal Reserve, whose mandate is to control inflation.

It’s small comfort that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell admits he was surprised that inflation was not “transitory.” The Fed a host of extraordinary measures to buoy the economy during the pandemic, of which just keeping interest rates to almost zero was one. It also made direct loans to city and state governments, businesses and banks; utilized quantitative easing; and set up an array of credit facilities. As a result, Brookings Institution experts explain, “by the end of 2021, inflation was well above the Fed’s 2% target and labor markets were nearing the Fed’s ‘maximum employment’ target.”

In colloquial terms, the Fed should have taken away the punch bowl far sooner. Then came the war in Ukraine, which sent already rising fuel costs even higher. Biden has a legitimate argument that his spending plan only contributed a tiny slider of the 7.9 percent inflation rate. By one estimate, the plan only increased inflation by 0.35 percentage points.

From a political standpoint, however, a president cannot claim to have rescued the economy but bear little responsibility for inflation. Moreover, it is hard to get voters to appreciate what they did not happen because of his rescue package. We didn’t see extended high unemployment. Thousands of businesses were kept open. Millions of Americans avoided eviction. Millions of kids were kept out of poverty. And most schools didn’t remain shut last year.

Biden has been striving to show he understands inflation is painful. For a time, he nibbled around the edges, primarily working on supply-chain issues. This past week, he marked a turning point, announcing a massive scheme to release 1 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and to penalize oil companies that leave leased public lands untapped. (The latter will need congressional approval and will likely fail to get support from Republicans, who remain cozy with the fossil-fuel industry.) If this works to increase supply and bring down fuel costs (in conjunction with market-driven increases in rig activity ), Biden may get some credit.

Looking at the big picture, Biden’s economic record is extraordinary, but it is marred by inflation. Whether responsible or not for the latter, Biden is unlikely to improve the public’s surly mood until inflation abates. That is bad news for Democrats’ chances in the midterms, but if the Fed brings down inflation without driving the country into a recession, Biden’s economic record may be viewed as one of the most successful in history. That is a big “if.”

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