WASHINGTON — November’s elections could be determined by voters’ response to spiking food and fuel prices, a scenario that could spell disaster for President Joe Biden’s party both in Florida and across the nation.
Inflation has been a persistent headache for Biden since last year, and three months into his second year in office it’s only gotten worse.
“No president has ever won on high inflation. It could be the most difficult political challenge a president ever faces because there is no simple policy solution,” said Alex Conant, a Washington-based strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, among other prominent Republicans.
The Consumer Price Index rose by 8.5 percent from March 2021 to March 2022 nationwide, a 40-year high.
The Tampa metro area saw an even bigger spike of 10.2 percent during the same period, according to the data released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. South Florida saw prices jump 9.8 percent during the 12 months beginning February of 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, highlighted the data Tuesday during an event at Miami Dade College, pointing to federal spending as the driver.
“You go back to last year, and they said inflation wasn’t a worry, even though a lot of us were saying that this was going to be a problem,” he said. “When you’re printing trillions and trillions of dollars, the idea that you can just do that infinitum without there being any consequences was completely foolhardy.”
Republicans have repeatedly referred to “Bidenflation.” The White House has pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the cause and has leaned on the phrase “Putin’s price hike” to deflect political blame for increased costs, especially for fuel. Energy prices increased by 32 percent nationally over the last 12 months, while food costs increased by 8.8 percent.
Who will get the blame for rising prices?
The war in Ukraine has certainly contributed, but it’s one of several factors driving inflation, said William Christiansen, chairperson of the Department of Finance at Florida State University’s College of Business. The resurgence of COVID-19 in China could cause even more disruption for the global supply chain, he said.
Domestically, consumers have a lot of cash to spend both because of their own steps to save during the pandemic and government stimulus, which has heated up demand, Christiansen said. But paychecks are unlikely to keep pace with price increases.
“Wages and salaries have gone up pretty nicely this past year, but are still overwhelmed by the inflation numbers. So their real incomes have dropped,” Christiansen said.
U.S. policymakers have limited influence on the issue because of the international nature of the problem, but that may not save them from getting blamed at the ballot box.
And since they control the White House and both chambers of Congress, Democrats are likely to face the brunt of voters’ anger.
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“It’s like the football coach that gets blamed for all of the losses. We know that at FSU, unfortunately,” Christiansen said. “This could be an unfavorable time for Democrats, no question.”
Biden sought to address price concerns Tuesday during a speech in Iowa — and will likely have to do so many more times between now and November.
“I’ve called on Congress to move immediately to lower the cost of families’ utility bills, prescription drug bills and more, while lowering the deficit to reduce inflationary pressures. And that’s what we’ve done — we’ve lowered the deficit by $300 billion so far,” Biden said in Iowa.
He also pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the culprit behind these pressures. “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank — none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” Biden said.
Hours before the speech, Jesse Lee, a senior adviser for communications to Biden’s National Economic Council, on Twitter accused Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, of being “fully in lockstep” with Putin “in blaming Biden for Putin’s Price Hike” after the Florida senator attacked Biden over the report.
Lee later said that Scott “REALLY doesn’t like it when you point out that Putin is bragging about causing global inflation, and Scott is celebrating it as a ‘political goldmine,’ ” referencing a comment Scott made to The Wall Street Journal in 2021 about the potential political benefits for the GOP.
Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, objected to the characterization and criticized Biden’s administration for deflecting blame for inflation, which started months before the invasion of Ukraine.
“Instead of owning the crisis it created, the Biden administration wildly claimed that anyone blaming the president is ‘in lockstep with Putin.’ It’s an embarrassing example of how out of touch Biden’s administration is with reality,” Scott said in a statement Wednesday.
What inflation means for Florida candidates
The back-and-forth between Scott and the White House highlights the challenge that Biden’s party will have in addressing inflation as campaign season heats up, with control of both the House and Senate on the line. The sitting president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections.
Broward County Commissioner Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat running to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, said his party needs to provide voters with a solution.
“There is no question that gas, food, and rent costs are squeezing Americans in ways we haven’t seen in 40 years. Congress has to work together to address these kitchen-table issues to provide people with relief. Democrats may have not caused this issue but we have a responsibility to fix it,” Moskowitz told the Herald in a statement.
Moskowitz is running in a Democratic-leaning district. The issue could be more difficult for Democrats to navigate in competitive districts or statewide races where it’s likely to be the top Republican attack.
Conant, the GOP strategist, said this will be the No. 1 issue for voters and candidates will have to show voters that they understand their pain. It could be particularly resonant with seniors living on fixed incomes from their retirement savings, a key constituency in Florida.
“This is a layup for Republicans because voters are inclined to blame the president when things aren’t going well,” Conant said.
It’ll be a key issue in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Rubio and his likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Val Demings, who represents the Orlando area.
“People are paying more for everything and Congresswoman Val Demings has supported every Biden policy which caused this. The last thing Florida needs right now is someone in the Senate like her who will support every insane left wing idea that will make an already bad crisis even worse,” Rubio told the Herald in a statement.
Demings’ campaign, on the other hand, contended that the congresswoman was the one working to shield Floridians’ wallets by supporting legislation to lower prescription drug costs and backing the bipartisan infrastructure law that will pay for port improvements to help the supply chain in the long term.
“Growing up as the daughter of a maid and a janitor, Chief Demings knows exactly how important a dollar is to so many families, and she’s always been a champion for making the American Dream accessible and affordable to all,” said Demings campaign spokesman Christian Slater. “While Chief Demings was fighting to lower costs and invest in working families, Marco Rubio was putting his partisan political agenda and wealthy donors ahead of easing the economic burden on middle class families.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed reporting.