Joe Biden and the Parable of the Raisin Bran

It escaped the notice of most in the national political press.

But a stray comment President Biden made in a local television interview last week spoke volumes about Democrats’ struggle to find a winning message on inflation.

“By the way,” Biden began, “the food prices — the main driver of food prices — is not the price of beef and eggs, etc., although they’re up. It’s packaged goods, packaged goods.”

Then the gaffe: “You’re going to see people not buying Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. You’re going to see them buying other raisin bran, which is going to be a dollar cheaper.”

Needless to say, eat generic raisin bran is not exactly a poll-tested, winning message. Clips of that comment went viral on the right, racking up tens of thousands of views on conservative YouTube and TikTok channels.

Perhaps the president was reading the business section of The New York Times, which reported this week on how food companies are banking huge profits. Or perhaps he was just falling into the politician’s trap of playing pundit, which is rarely a good idea.

Either way, Biden’s remark undercut what he had just claimed seconds earlier — that his administration was succeeding in tackling rising prices for gasoline and groceries.

“We’re getting them down,” he said. “I told you I’d bring them down. We’re bringing it down.”

True for gas, less so for groceries. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cranked up interest rates another notch, indicating that the people who can shape the U.S. economy don’t believe they have licked the inflation problem.

More to the point, Biden’s raisin bran comment unintentionally revealed just how inconsistent the Democratic Party’s message on inflation has come across to voters.

Some of it has been bad luck — above all, the fact that Biden took office during a pandemic that scrambled global supply chains, driving up costs that businesses then duly passed along to consumers. “We’re not as bad as Turkey” is a hard case to make at the polls.

There were also costly communications mistakes along the way. Last spring, administration economists were insisting that inflation would be “transitory.” That assessment proved to be wildly optimistic, and Republicans have not let voters forget it.

When the war in Ukraine drove a fresh jump in prices, Democrats deployed the phrase “Putin’s price hike” to try to mitigate the damage. There were also scattershot attempts at whacking Corporate America for “price-gouging” — meatpackers and oil companies being among the main villains — although some liberal economists questioned the logic.

In remarks on inflation in May, Biden tried out a new phrase: “the ultra-MAGA agenda,” referring to a plan by Senator Rick Scott of Florida that would require Congress to reauthorize spending for Social Security and Medicare. Republicans, including Scott, have distanced themselves from the idea.

Finally, with the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage in August, Democrats had accomplishments that they could credibly argue would address rising costs for families. The legislation included price caps for insulin and provisions allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, for instance. In isolation, those policies were overwhelmingly popular, polls showed.

But that sentiment may have been an illusion: Polls also indicated that only a third of voters had heard of the new law and that the majority did not believe it would reduce inflation.

Biden has spoken about the economy in speeches far more often than any other subject; he has made 22 appearances since August for midterm-related events, according my count. Even so, progressives complain that Democratic candidates neither put significant resources or energy into promoting those achievements, nor do they adequately punish Republicans for their own positions.

Democrats felt crippled, too, by the president’s poll numbers: Few candidates were eager to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a leader whose approval rating went negative in August 2021 and has hovered around the low 40s ever since.

In a prime-time speech on Thursday, Biden made his closing pitch to voters, arguing about the threat Republicans posed to democracy — not about what he had done to address inflation. Even though he spoke about the economy earlier in the day, his democracy speech led the news.

Republicans, meanwhile, had a much simpler task in this election: blame Democrats for everything.

In one telling episode recounted by Republican strategists, the National Republican Congressional Committee ran a small series of digital ads during the Fourth of July congressional recess in 2021 highlighting the cost of food. They resonated strongly with voters, even in focus groups run by Democrats.

At the time, however, Democrats were still trying to convince the public that prices were not, in fact, rising.

“Planning a cookout this year?” the White House said on Twitter. “Ketchup on the news. According to the Farm Bureau, the cost of a 4th of July BBQ is down from last year. It’s a fact you must-hear(d). Hot dog, the Biden economic plan is working. And that’s something we can all relish.”

A graphic accompanying the tweet read: “The cost of a 4th of July cookout in 2021 is down $0.16 from last year.” In response, Representative Burgess Owens, a Republican of Utah, said on Twitter that the Biden administration was “bragging about saving us $0.04 on sliced cheese.”

At the time, the Consumer Price Index had risen 5 percent between May 2020 and May 2021; the most recent numbers indicate that the index has climbed by 8.2 percent in the 12 months through September.

Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, a former lawyer and the chairman of the Republicans’ House campaign arm, said in an interview that he was bringing his courtroom experience to the task of winning back the seats his party lost in 2018. He advised G.O.P. candidates to make Biden’s handling of inflation their top line of attack.

“It’s something I learned when I was trying cases in front of juries,” Emmer said. “You figure out what the theme of the case is.” The same goes for politics, he said: “You know what your message is, and you hammer at it every single day.”

“Democrats spent the last two years rescuing America’s small businesses, saving jobs, getting a pandemic under control and investing in America’s future,” Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York shot back. “Tom Emmer and his motley crew of MAGA extremists were hawking deadly conspiracy theories and ripping away 50 years of reproductive freedom — that’s what’s on the ballot Tuesday.”

Hammer it they did. For election ads, Republican researchers clipped examples of Democratic politicians taking their cues from the White House and downplaying the rising costs early on.

Ads running nonstop in Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District, for instance, show Representative Dan Kildee saying that inflation was “transitory.” In the state’s Seventh District, Republicans have tried to undercut Representative Elissa Slotkin’s bipartisan image with incessant commercials that claim she voted with Biden “100 percent of the time” and that she “doesn’t get” Americans’ financial struggles.

“She voted for trillions in new spending. That’s fueling inflation. I’ll stop the out-of-control spending,” Slotkin’s opponent, Tom Barrett, says in one of them.

Republicans have said much less about how they would address inflation if they retake the majority in Congress; economists are highly skeptical that cutting the federal budget when the economy is softening would help.

But few Democrats have delivered as sharp a rejoinder as former President Barack Obama, who mocked Republican ideas at a recent campaign rally in Michigan.

“When gas prices go up, when grocery prices go up, that takes a bite out of people’s paycheck,” Obama said. He added, “Republicans are having a field day running ads talking about it, but what is their actual solution to it?”

“I’ll tell you: They want to gut Social Security, then Medicare, and then give some more tax breaks to the wealthy,” he continued. “And the reason I know that’s their agenda is, listen, that’s their answer to everything.”

But there are few signs that the Democrats’ counterattacks are working. In polls, voters now give Republicans an enormous edge on who would do a better job on the economy. In the latest Wall Street Journal survey, only 27 percent of voters said that Biden’s policies “had a positive impact on the economy.”

Forecasting models using economic indicators predict that Republicans will pick up as many as 45 House seats next week, though other factors could limit Democrats’ losses, and it’s anyone’s guess who will win the Senate.

Emmer, for one, expressed bewilderment that Democrats did not have better answers to Republican attacks on inflation. As early as February 2021, he said, “We knew this is the issue, we knew it was coming.”

But when some Democratic lawmakers voiced their concerns that spring about rising prices, he said, their leaders “refused to listen to them.”

  • Early turnout is high in most states, Nick Corasaniti writes, and experts see broad Republican energy as well as Democratic enthusiasm in major battlegrounds. But changes in how people vote have added new uncertainty.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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