The Consumer Price Index – a measure of inflation in the economy – hit a four-decade high in March, a brutal reminder for Democrats of the political headwinds facing them as they seek to keep their majorities in the House and Senate this fall.
Prices rose 8.5% from March 2021 to March 2022, while they increased 1.2% from February to March. Half of the increase in the CPI was due to rising gas prices in March.
The Biden administration had been expecting a bad CPI number. “We expect March CPI headline inflation to be extraordinarily due to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s price hike,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday.
(It’s worth noting here that inflation had been surging prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the United States’ decision to stop importing all Russian oil.)
The problem for Biden (and his party) is that it’s not at all clear that people care why everything they are trying to buy costs more. All they know is that gas prices are through the roof – although they are lower this week than last – and everything they want or need to buy costs more (a lot more) than it did a year ago.
Inflation is such a powerful issue in politics because, unlike, say, foreign policy, it touches every person on a daily basis. You notice when it costs more to fill up your car. Or shop for groceries. Or buy just about anything.
Consider this from Matt Zeitlin, an economics reporter at Grid News, about the details of the CPI report: “The food at home index rose 10.0 percent over the last 12 months, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending March 1981. The index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs increased 13.7 percent over the last year as the index for beef rose 16.0 percent.”
When that happens, you look for someone to blame. And, if past is prologue, you blame the party in charge.
Now, that is, at some level unfair. It is very difficult for the president of the United States to deal with rising inflation – particularly given the ongoing international crisis occasioned by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
But, what the soaring – and historically high – inflation numbers mean is that President Joe Biden’s attempts to sell a positive economic story will continue to be badly hamstrung.
Despite unemployment falling to 3.6% in March, the lowest since the start of the pandemic in February 2020, polls suggest that people remain very concerned about the state of the economy.
In Gallup polling last month, more than 1 in 3 people (35%) cited economic issues as the most pressing concern facing the country – up from just 22% who said the same in January. Of that 35%, almost half – 17% – cited rising inflation specifically as the biggest issue confronting the country, more than double the number who said the same in January.
This is a massive political problem for Biden and his party. And, experts predict that the CPI will remain above 6% for the remainder of the year, meaning that it isn’t going away as an issue anytime soon.
Tuesday’s CPI report is a major dark cloud on the political horizon for Democrats. And there’s no obvious way to solve the problem between now and November.