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Rising prices take a toll on Democrats. How has Biden responded to inflation?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Days before the election, Democrats are addressing an issue that has endangered their majorities in Congress. We've heard it the last two mornings from voters on this program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK ONDRUSEK: My labor is up 30, 40% versus four years ago. The cost of everything - utilities, electric, gas - every vendor's tacking on fuel charges onto the bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARGARET BUSH: I'll take example - a bucket of chitlins used to be 8.99. OK? Nobody eats chitlins but Black people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's true.

BUSH: OK? Now they're 24.99, the same bucket that was 8.99 two years ago.

INSKEEP: Democrats might prefer that voters focused on something else, but here we are. So today President Biden is expected to give a speech arguing that Republican policies would make inflation worse. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been following the White House approach to inflation over time. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from voters?

KHALID: Well, a lot of voters I meet - Republicans and Democrats - agree they are frustrated with rising prices, but they differ on who is to blame. The key question I have been trying to answer as a political reporter is how, if at all, people's inflation frustrations actually translate to votes. And so, Steve, I went to an early voting site in Georgia. It's about an hour's drive north of Atlanta. That's where I met Somesh and Mousumi Karanjee. They're feeling inflation on everything from bread and eggs to home renovations. But they voted to keep their Democratic senator in Congress.

SOMESH KARANJEE: The economy, I don't think, has direct relationship with politics. It's - if economy is bad here, it's globally bad. And the previous two years has been a very important factor. The COVID situation, supply chain situation - I don't think politics has anything to do with it.

MOUSUMI KARANJEE: I mean, economy is always - like, it has its ups and downs.

INSKEEP: And so they voted for the Democrat in their election. But what do you hear from Republican voters?

KHALID: So a little while later, I met Velvet and Darryl Sheets. They told me their No. 1 concern is inflation, and they voted for Republicans up and down the ballot.

VELVET SHEETS: We never run out of milk, right? We always keep milk in the refrigerator. And it just seems like it just keeps getting higher and higher and higher. Eggs - same thing.

DARRYL SHEETS: Our 401(k)s are down by 25 to 35%. There's, you know, one party controlling what's going on politically. You have to assign that somebody.

KHALID: And so they assign that blame to the Democrats.

INSKEEP: So how has the White House been responding over time?

KHALID: You know, Steve, it has been a challenge. But I want to take you back in time to Biden's first week in the Oval Office. He was worried about COVID, hunger, evictions and unemployment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yesterday, we learned that 900,000 more Americans filed for unemployment.

KHALID: So Democrats came in proposing this massive pandemic aid package, nearly $2 trillion. And this set off some alarm bells about inflation. Larry Summers, an economist who had worked in the Obama administration, took to the pages of The Washington Post and warned it was too much money. The president dismissed those concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The way I see it, the biggest risk is not going too big. If we go, it's if we go too small.

KHALID: But by May, prices were creeping up. The White House insisted it was not a long-term problem. Biden's team kept using this one word to describe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JANET YELLEN: I expect all of this to be transitory.

BRIAN DEESE: At the end of the day, a lot of that issues are transitory.

JEN PSAKI: Most economic analysts believe that it will have a temporary or transitory impact.

KHALID: The president said the price increases were the result of an economy roaring back to life after the pandemic.

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BIDEN: The vast majority of the experts, including Wall Street, are suggesting that it's highly unlikely that it's going to be long-term inflation that's going to get out of hand.

KHALID: But by the fall of 2021, inflation had hit a 30-year high. The White House stopped using that word transitory and spent more time explaining why inflation was happening and what the president could do about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: COVID-19 has stretched global supply chains like never before, and suddenly when you go to order a pair of sneakers or a bicycle or Christmas presents for the family, you're met with higher prices and long delays or they say they just don't have any at all.

KHALID: Inflation kept climbing, and then Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and gas prices spiked. The president and his team continued to blame a combination of culprits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BIDEN: The inflation has everything to do with the supply chain.

You want to bring down inflation? Let's make sure the wealthiest corporations pay their fair share.

Today's inflation report confirms what Americans already know. Putin's price hike is hitting America hard.

KHALID: Biden decided to release an unprecedented amount of oil out of emergency reserves. It was one of the few tools he had to combat gas prices. And he repeatedly told Americans he was trying to do more to fight inflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: My top priority is getting prices under control.

KHALID: But in June, inflation hit another record. And shortly after, Democrats passed a massive bill to curb climate change and lower health care costs. They called it the Inflation Reduction Act. And it's something they have been trying to campaign on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Democrats are lowering your everyday costs like prescription drugs, health care premiums, energy bills and gas prices.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: OK, some people cheering there, Asma. But how are voters broadly taking the White House efforts to adapt here?

KHALID: You know, Steve, I've been talking to voters about inflation since prices started rising last year. I went to different states - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. And in the beginning, there was a sense that the White House was perhaps slow to acknowledge people's pain. But the more that prices increased, I will say, the more we saw how politicized this issue became. The White House is confident that it's done everything it can and things are beginning to move in the right direction. I spoke with one of Biden's top economic advisers, Jared Bernstein.

And I will say, Steve, you know, this White House message does seem to resonate with some people, at least some Democrats. Back in Georgia, I met Aylessa Morris and Pablo Zacarias. They say everything does feel super expensive, between groceries for their kids and lumber prices for his construction company. But they say the president is trying.

PABLO ZACARIAS: We feel like he did the best he could...

AYLESSA MORRIS: Yes. Like, every president has their thing.

ZACARIAS: ...With the situation.

MORRIS: Yes. So I feel like he's doing the most that he can to make things better.

INSKEEP: Well, what is Biden's closing argument on this?

KHALID: The president has pointed out that inflation is currently not getting worse and gas prices have come down. And his final message is essentially that the cost of living will go up if Republicans take over Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: If they take control, they said their first aim is to get rid of the Inflation Reduction Act, and inflation is going to go up, not down.

KHALID: And so, you know, Steve, he is trying to cast this election as a choice rather than a referendum on his own performance. The challenge for Democrats, though, is that they are the party in power. And so whether or not Biden is actually responsible for rising prices, he and his party often bear the consequences of people's frustrations. Back in Georgia again, I met Dale Jordan. He describes himself as a fiscal conservative. He didn't like the Republican, couldn't get himself to vote for the Democrat either. So he voted third party. He blames Democratic policies for his high bills.

DALE JORDAN: You cannot keep printing money. Just like in business, you can't keep throwing money at something.

KHALID: Democrats keep talking about this Inflation Reduction Act.

JORDAN: Well, that's a joke. I've read parts of it. It's a joke. And anything it does will take, you know, 10 years for you to see anything.

KHALID: You know, from my interviews, it is clear that Republicans are angry about the economy. The White House is trying to counter that pessimistic view. And I will say, in these final days, we're actually hearing both parties try to use fears about the economy to drive voter turnout.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid, pleasure to hear from you.

KHALID: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.