LBC Views: Biden gets empathetic over America's inflation woes

13 May 2022, 14:13

Joe Biden has been on empathy patrol amid the US' inflation crisis, Simon Marks writes
Joe Biden has been on empathy patrol amid the US' inflation crisis, Simon Marks writes. Picture: LBC
Simon Marks

By Simon Marks

If American voters could agree on anything about Joe Biden when he secured the keys to the White House, then it assuredly revolved around the word “empathy”.

In its new President, the country had found a man who has never forgotten his working class roots, the vital importance of the bonds of family, and the impact that grief has had on his own life and the lives of millions of others.

It is a strange turn of events, then, that the President has spent most of this American Week trying to prove to voters that he feels their pain.

On Thursday, in a statement marking the country’s one millionth Covid-19 death, he told Americans “we must not grow numb to…sorrow”, claiming that the country had been “humbled” by its journey to the loss of one million souls.

But it was only this week that the White House itself started to sound humbled by the country’s inflation crisis.

Figures showed the threat slightly receding in April. Prices rose a mere 8.3% compared to 8.5% in March, but the rate of inflation is still at 40-year highs.

For weeks, the White House has argued the focus on inflation is over-stated. Officials last month assured reporters that price rises were having their heaviest impact only on America’s “gas guzzlers”.

They said it was the country’s love of the automobile that was the problem, and argued that a basket of staple foodstuffs that cost $100 last year was only $2 expensive more expensive in the shops this spring.

Every American shopper knows that’s nonsense. Even in affluent sections of the country you can’t avoid sticker-shock when you go to the grocery store. In our family alone, a bulk purchase of teabags that last year cost $65, set us back $85 when we re-ordered last week. And that’s before we got to the chocolate digestives.

So this week, Joe Biden’s been on empathy patrol. “I know you’ve got to be frustrated”, he told Americans on Tuesday. “I know. I can taste it”, he insisted as he assured people that “I’m taking inflation very seriously, and it’s my top domestic priority”.

Most voters do not appear minded to believe him. His approval ratings keeping heading downwards, and this week alone 8 voters in 10 told a CNN/SSRS poll that “the government isn’t doing enough to combat inflation”.

The White House says it’s a messaging problem, made more complicated by the fact that very few voters have degrees in economics and therefore don’t understand the nuances of inflation.

Jared Bernstein, a member of President Biden’s Council of Ecomnomic Advisers says the administration is engaged in “an all-out effort to address this elevated inflation”.

But, he insisted, “shelves are actually about as well-stocked as they were pre-pandemic”, calling that “an important improvement” in light of the supply chain issues the country is experiencing.

For one product in America this week, the shelves are largely bare: baby formula has disappeared from many pharmacies and supermarkets, and some retailers are now rationing it. Parents of newborns and infants are expressing fury over a crisis sparked by a February recall of three brands of American baby formula, amid fears that they were causing bacterial infections in children.
Newly-minted White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre attempted to get in front of the crisis on Wednesday, claiming “this is an urgent issue that…the White House is working 24/7 to address”.

Asked if she could identify which White House staffer is overseeing the day-and-night effort, she was unable to provide a name. It’s empathy Jim, just not as we know it.

I’ll be exploring all of this and much more in my “American Week” on Eddie Mair’s Friday programme. Whether you’re a regular listener or a new recruit, I hope you’ll join us at 4:45pm sharp every Friday for a 15-minute slice of America that you won’t hear anywhere else.