On Tuesday morning, President Joe Biden had just finished a speech on the contrast between the two major parties when a reporter tried to ask him a question about one of the biggest political stories of the day: abortion rights.
Biden brushed it off. “I want the story to be about inflation,” he explained.
The exchange ― and the roughly 25-minute speech that preceded it ― shows the challenge facing the Biden-led Democratic Party as it heads into November’s midterm elections hoping to defend its ultra-slim congressional majorities. While the expected Supreme Court decision that would strike down abortion rights is likely to be politically toxic for the GOP and energize elements of the Democratic base, record-high inflation is all but certain to remain the top issue for the bulk of the electorate.
Biden’s speech on Tuesday doesn’t mean he or other leading Democrats are going to ignore abortion rights as a midterm issue — Biden himself has condemned the leaked draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade as “radical” and suggested the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could soon target other constitutional rights. But it was striking for Biden’s first overtly political speech since the draft leaked to ignore abortion rights.
Polling, both public and private, shows Republicans with a massive lead on which party can better handle inflation. While abortion rights is likely to help individual candidates for Senate and gubernatorial seats, turning around the overall political environment will require convincing voters to trust Democrats to tackle an inflation problem many of them blame Biden for creating.
In his speech, Biden tried to address the issue head-on. He argued his policy proposals on health care and energy, most of which remain behind a congressional blockade in the form of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), would help tackle rising costs while Republicans would embrace an “ultra-MAGA” agenda put forward by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would raise taxes on Americans and sunset Social Security and Medicare.
“I know families all across America are hurting because of inflation,” Biden said Tuesday, declaring the battle against inflation to be his “top domestic priority.”
Inflation remains most visible to Americans at the gas pump. The price for an average gallon of gas hit $4.37 nationwide on Tuesday, the highest total in history without taking inflation into account. (The inflation-adjusted mark was in July 2008.) The Bureau of Labor Statistics is also set to release the inflation report for April on Wednesday morning, with the White House praying for signs inflation is slowing from March’s 8.5% mark.
The core reason for inflation is a sharply increased demand for goods and services as the world comes out of the coronavirus pandemic-induced slowdown, with pandemic-related supply chain snafus, especially a rise in the cost of microprocessors, adding to the problem. Economists also point to the American Rescue Plan, which Biden and Democrats passed last year, as a contributing factor. Recent spikes in oil and food prices are a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — both countries are major wheat producers — and the sanctions Western nations have placed on Russia as a result.
Inflation has completely overshadowed other positive economic news, including record job growth and a sharp increase in the creation of new businesses.
“Our economy has gone from being on the mend to on the move,” Biden said during his speech, adding later: “Because of the actions we’ve taken, America is in a stronger position to meet this [inflation] challenge than just about any other country in the world.”
In his speech, Biden related a series of steps his administration has taken to lower inflation, from releasing a million barrels of oil a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to trying to crack down on concentration in the meat industry. He pitched the remaining elements of his Build Back Better agenda ― including increasing taxes on the rich, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and spending more on clean energy ― as a way to decrease costs.
Much of Biden’s speech, however, was dedicated to defining the GOP as more extreme than ever before ― and as much of a threat to Americans’ wallets as to their uteruses. To do so, he elevated a simmering fight with Scott, a close ally of former President Donald Trump and the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Earlier this year, Scott rolled out a plan requiring every American to pay at least some income taxes — a move that would result in tax hikes for tens of millions of middle-class American families. The plan also said all federal legislation would sunset every five years unless Congress voted to reauthorize it. Biden and other Democrats have portrayed that provision as an existential threat to Social Security and Medicare.
“I can’t believe that the majority of Republicans buy on to Scott’s plan,” Biden said. “But that’s a plan in writing, and he’s in the leadership.”
Other members of the GOP, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have tried to distance themselves from Scott’s agenda. But Biden clearly plans on making the Florida senator, a staunch conservative who is one of Congress’ wealthiest members, a major figure in Democratic messaging.
Scott responded to Biden by challenging him to a debate, suggesting he should resign and implying the president isn’t cogent.
“Joe Biden is unwell. He’s unfit for office. He’s incoherent, incapacitated and confused,” Scott told reporters at the Capitol. “He doesn’t know where he is half the time. He’s incapable of leading and he’s incapable of carrying out his duties.”
Biden shrugged off Scott’s comments: “The guy has a problem.”
Other members of Biden’s administration discussed the forthcoming ruling on Tuesday. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, said rolling back abortion rights would hurt the economy.
“Eliminating the right of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades,” Yellen said.
Even as Biden tried not to talk about abortion rights, Democrats in key races were relentlessly focused on the issue. The party’s strategists are hopeful it can fire up a Democratic base that trails the GOP in enthusiasm, while also winning over swing voters in Democratic-leaning states.
New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, for one, released a digital ad attacking three of her potential GOP opponents for wanting to “fulfill Mitch McConnell’s decades-long crusade to criminalize abortion.”
Republicans do plan on accusing Democrats of focusing on abortion rights at the expense of the economy. A memo from the NRSC advising candidates on how to talk about abortion said they should accuse Democrats of “want[ing] to obsess and spread lies about abortion because they’ve not only failed to address the concerns of the American people; their agenda has made things worse.”