Progressives Urge Biden to Push Harder on ‘Greedflation’ - The World News

Progressives Urge Biden to Push Harder on ‘Greedflation’

As high prices at grocery stores, gas pumps and pharmacies have soured many voters on his first term, President Biden has developed a populist riposte: Blame big corporations for inflation, not me.

But despite facing a tough re-election battle where economic issues will be central, Mr. Biden has not leaned into that message as frequently or naturally as some other Democrats, including senators running in competitive seats across the southwest and the industrial Midwest. The Biden campaign has not focused its television or online advertisements on messages berating companies for high prices, unlike Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who have made the issue a centerpiece of their campaigns — and who are outrunning Mr. Biden in polls.

Now, some progressives are urging Mr. Biden to follow those senators’ lead and make “greedflation,” as they call it, a driving theme of his re-election bid. They say that taking the fight to big business could bolster the broader Main Street vs. Wall Street argument he is pursuing against former President Donald J. Trump, particularly with the working-class voters of color Mr. Biden needs to motivate. And they believe polls show voters are primed to hear the president condemn big corporations in more forceful terms.

“It’s a winning message for Democrats,” said April Verrett, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which is knocking on doors in battleground states as part of a $200 million voter-turnout operation. “And clearly Bob Casey, who’s doing better in the polls than the president, is proving that it’s the winning message.”

Inflation soared under Mr. Biden in 2021 and 2022, as the economy emerged from pandemic recession. Its causes were complex, including snarled global supply chains, stimulative policies by the Federal Reserve and, to a degree, federal fiscal policies including Covid relief bills signed by Mr. Trump and the $1.9 trillion emergency spending measure Mr. Biden signed soon after taking office to help people and businesses hurt by the downturn.

What Republicans call “Bidenflation” has become one of the president’s biggest political liabilities in his rematch with Mr. Trump. In response, Mr. Biden has sought to simultaneously cheer progress in stabilizing or bringing down prices — growth has slowed sharply from a year ago — while acknowledging the pain voters still feel in their pocketbooks.

Mr. Biden has also attacked corporations for pricing practices in certain sectors such as meatpacking, snack foods, concert tickets and gasoline. His administration has worked to limit prices for prescription drugs like insulin and inhalers, rein in bank overdraft and credit card fees and make airline travel cheaper and more transparent, achievements that he often discusses on the campaign trail.

“We’re taking on corporate greed to bring down the price of gas, food and rent, eliminating junk fees,” Mr. Biden told a crowd of 1,000 cheering supporters in Philadelphia last week.

Still, leaning into that combative message is not always a natural fit for Mr. Biden. He proudly calls himself a “capitalist” and has long had a close, if sometimes contentious, relationship with corporate America. Some economists close to his White House disagree that corporations’ raising prices to juice profits is a major driver of inflation.

And while Mr. Biden delights in telling a folksy anecdote about Snickers bars shrinking in size without doing the same in price, other Democrats have sounded far more aggressive on the issue. The push to blame corporations has united many factions of the Democratic Party, including progressives, swing-state populists, union leaders and environmentalists.

Mr. Brown, who represents a state that Mr. Trump won handily in 2020, has released several web ads proclaiming he is “cracking down on the companies that rip off Ohio.” Mr. Casey cut a campaign ad showing corporate executives in suits sneaking into a grocery store under cover of night and switching out cereal boxes for smaller replacements. Senate Democrats in tight races like Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jacky Rosen of Nevada are making similar pitches.

“President Biden has quite a bit of latitude here to put the blame where it belongs and he should not be shy about voicing it,” said Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who ran against Mr. Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020. “The alternative is that they’re going to blame you.”

But some of Mr. Biden’s progressive allies say the president has found effective — and popular — ways to talk about corporate pricing practices, including his focus on “junk fees” levied by airlines, concert promoters and more. They also say he must balance the issue with a broad set of campaign messages, including on abortion and democracy.

“You’re going to be more focused on kitchen-table issues in a Senate race,” said Lindsay Owens, executive director of the progressive Groundwork Collaborative in Washington. Mr. Biden, she added, is “doing the exact right thing. He’s not focusing on the wonky, eggheaded debates on where inflation is coming from, and he’s focusing a lot more on the ways Americans are feeling and experiencing price increases in their daily lives.”

The liberal argument that corporate greed has driven prices higher flows from a recent surge in corporate profits, notching record highs after the pandemic. They say many companies, particularly in industries with relatively little competition, have used the reopening of the economy to test how aggressively they can raise prices.

Mr. Biden has tailored his arguments about corporate greed to sectors where profit margins have remained consistently high even as inflation has begun to fall, like groceries and gasoline. White House economists calculated this year that profit margins had risen by 2 percentage points for food and beverage stores from the eve of the pandemic, an increase that could explain some — but not nearly all — of the nation’s grocery price increases.

Many economists, including libertarians and even some former top aides to Democratic presidents, reject that argument, noting that there is little historical link between profit levels and the inflation rate. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco wrote last month that evidence suggests corporate price markups have not been a “main driver” of the inflation increase under Mr. Biden, though they also found markups have persisted in certain sectors like motor vehicles and petroleum.

Republican lawmakers have long accused Democrats of seeking a political distraction by blaming companies for price increases.

“For the last three years the American people have been ravaged by inflation,” Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said last month in a Senate subcommittee hearing on price gouging. “That inflation, like all inflation, is man-made. That man’s name is Joe Biden.”

Mr. Biden has carefully targeted his arguments about corporate pricing to evidence provided to him by his economic team, said Bharat Ramamurti, a former deputy director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council.

“Maybe that ends up in something that is slightly more reserved,” Mr. Ramamurti said. But when it comes to price gouging, he said, “I think he’s been pretty full-throated in calling it out when he sees it, and when the economic data supports it.”

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, said that “President Biden’s top priority is beating inflation, which is why he has taken historic action and continues to fight the corporate greed that is keeping prices high.”

Few Democrats have done more to push the message that corporations are driving inflation than Mr. Casey, who is running for re-election in Pennsylvania and introduced a Senate bill that would crack down on “shrinkflation” — a term for companies reducing the size of their goods but not cutting prices. Mr. Biden praised that legislation during his State of the Union address.

In an interview, Mr. Casey acknowledged that Democrats had generally been slow to follow his lead in blaming companies for higher prices.

“We may have been late,” he said. “But now that we’ve begun to make this point, I think a lot of voters have a sense that we get it and we’re trying to do something about it.”

For now, polling shows Mr. Trump with a clear edge: 58 percent of voters across six of the top battleground states say Mr. Trump would do a better job handling the economy, compared with 36 percent who prefer Mr. Biden, a New York Times/Siena College/Philadelphia Inquirer poll found last month.

But Democratic pollsters have found that many voters agree with the contention that corporations are responsible for inflation. Nearly 6 in 10 voters said corporations’ being “greedy” was a major cause of inflation, including a majority of independent voters, according to a poll by the progressive-leaning group Navigator Research.

The Biden campaign’s internal polling analyses have found similar trends.

Akhenaton Mikell, a mental health therapist from Philadelphia, agreed that corporate greed was “the main reason” for rising prices. But after voting for Mr. Biden in 2020, he’s unsure about doing so again.

“I used to be able to go to the supermarket and get a pack of chicken wings for $6-7-8 and now it’s like $14-15-16,” said Mr. Mikell, 55. “I haven’t been able to save as much. I’ve had to cut back on a number of things.”

There are signs that Mr. Biden plans to emphasize this issue more in the coming weeks. His team has produced an ad on corporate greed and the tax code that it plans to release soon. Lauren Hitt, a campaign spokeswoman, said Mr. Biden had “repeatedly taken on corporate greed” and would be “telling that story every day in every possible way on the campaign trail, from ads to door knocking and more.”

As for Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden and his allies have already worked to paint him as a friend of billionaires and plutocrats who would do little to address rising costs.

“The effort to bear down on corporate price gouging is part of the sharp contrast between Biden and Trump,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been a leading Democratic voice on the issue. “Trump cheers on the corporate profiteers. Joe Biden fights them.”

In the meantime, allies of Mr. Biden are doing their part to amplify the message that corporations are taking advantage of average Americans. The progressive groups Climate Power and Future Forward USA Action have begun a $50 million ad campaign that includes one spot featuring a South Carolina family farmer accusing big oil companies of making “huge profits off us.”

Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-treasurer of Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union, which is knocking on doors around the state, said that voters were responding to such messages.

“What resonates with working-class voters is price gouging,” Mr. Pappageorge said. “Big oil and big food are going to have to get reined in.”

Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Philadelphia.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *