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The Movement To Stick Inflation Blame On Biden

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to give remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Anna Moneymaker
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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to give remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Over the last few months, unflattering stickers of President Biden have been popping up at gas stations across America. They've been spotted in places like Georgia, Ohio, Idaho, and along I-95 between Washington, D.C., and Florida. The stickers typically show Biden pointing at the price of gas, saying "I did that!" We saw one last weekend while filling up at a gas station in Vallejo, California:

It's hard to say how widespread use of these stickers actually is, but they're all over the Internet. If you search "Biden sticker" on Google, they immediately pop up. In between TikTok videos of orangutans driving golf carts and a chipmunk named Squishy filling up his cheeks with nuts, there are hundreds of videos of TikTokers placing "I did that!" stickers on gas pumps. Dozens of online merchants sell packs of them on sites like Amazon and Etsy, usually for around 8 or 9 bucks for 100 stickers.

Etsy seller JolieJamesStyle typically sells "handmade jewelry with healing properties," but now they're selling Biden "I did that!" stickers. Kara Allbaugh, who owns a small design and marketing company in Columbus, Nebraska, says she started a secondary business selling these stickers on Etsy back in October. She says they've been flying off the shelves. "I don't know how long this will go on for, but it's still funny because now you can just put them on everything, not just gas," she says.

It's not just vandals, pranksters, and TikTokers trying to stick inflation blame on Biden. Last month, Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn), the ranking member of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, joined a virtual committee hearing with a background that featured the Biden "I did that" sticker prominently. "Life is simply more expensive for Americans under the Biden administration," Stauber declared.

/ U.S. Congress
U.S. Congress

While it's clear that life has gotten more expensive under President Biden, it's much less clear whether or how much he is actually to blame for it. In his defense, life has gotten more expensive for the residents of pretty much every country, not just America. Gas prices are surging around the world. Food prices are surging around the world. Commodities. Manufactured goods...

Last week, new data revealed that the European Union was seeing a record-high inflation rate of 5% in December, the highest in its twenty-year history. Canada is seeing the highest rate of inflation in two decades. Ditto South Korea. Turkey. The United Kingdom. Countries, big and small, conservative-led and progressive-led, are grappling with surging consumer prices as global demand outstrips supply. It's one big global inflation-fest, and no single leader seems to have the power to stop it.

All these countries have one thing in common: they're all struggling to recover from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that continues to disrupt the supply side of the economy, hampering the ability of businesses, workers, and the global supply chain to operate at full capacity and satisfy boomeranging consumer demand. Rather than putting a Biden "I did that" sticker on products with skyrocketing prices, it's probably more accurate to say "COVID did that."

That said, there is an ongoing, legitimate debate about the economic effects of President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Massive federal spending packages to provide relief from COVID began under President Trump and initially had bipartisan support. President Biden continued this spending spree with the American Rescue Plan, which supporters argue saved the economy and continues to fuel its rise. The White House says America's "economic recovery is stronger and faster than anywhere else in the world." Data backs this up. Economic growth has been significantly higher in the U.S. than in other advanced nations. The U.S. stock market surged almost 27% in 2021. The unemployment rate fell to 3.9%. On many measures, America's recovery looks great, and the recovery wouldn't have been as strong without all these extra Biden bucks sloshing around the economy.

But, at the same time, critics argue, all this money sloshing around led to excess demand for goods and services, contributing to supply chain overload, shortages, and rising inflation. The Pew Research Center finds that between 2019 and 2021, the U.S. saw one of the biggest inflation rate increases in the world, behind only Brazil and Turkey. The humongous surge in demand for durable goods seen in America over the last couple years was not seen in Europe or Asia, at least not at the same scale. Observers blame America's large stimulus packages, which dwarfed Europe's and gave many Americans a big chunk of money to spend. This money helped whet America's seemingly insatiable appetite for foreign-made products, which has been a major reason for the global shipping chaos that has been one cause of increasing prices.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that real wages for the average American worker — that is, the value of their paychecks after taking into account inflation — fell by 2.4 percent over the last year. Despite a tight labor market, pay raises, and millions of new jobs created, surging inflation eroded many Americans' standard of living in 2021.

"Inflation is a global challenge, appearing in virtually every developed nation as it emerges from the pandemic economic slump," President Biden said last week in a statement. "America is fortunate that we have one of the fastest growing economies — thanks in part to the American Rescue Plan — which enables us to address price increases and maintain strong, sustainable economic growth. That is my goal and I am focused on reaching it every day."

When it comes to gas prices, Biden has taken some steps to lower them, including releasing 50 million barrels of oil from America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve and asking the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other oil-producing nations to increase oil production (they said no). Conservatives and business groups want the president to do more to drill domestically, but even that likely wouldn't do much to budge the price of oil because it is largely set on the global stage. The president's powers are limited in lowering the price of oil.

On tackling inflation more broadly, the president's powers are also limited. Economists, including President Biden's own Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, have suggested that lowering tariffs would help, but that would likely only make a small dent, especially while the global supply chain remains clogged. The power to tame inflation really resides with the Federal Reserve, which is independent. It can (and likely will) raise interest rates to try and bring prices down, but that will also likely mean an economic slowdown, pain for American workers, and a decline in stock, housing, and other asset markets.

It's A Crummy Time To Be A World Leader

Back in March — with the rollout of vaccines and the popular American Rescue Plan expected to put the wind back in America's sails — a newly elected Biden enjoyed a 59% approval rating, according to the Reuters/Ipsos polling tracker. But, over the last six months, the pandemic has refused to go quietly into the night and inflation has taken off. Biden now has a 45% approval rating.

Had everyone gotten vaccinated, or had the Delta and Omicron variants not burst onto the scene, the economy and President Biden's approval ratings might well look a lot better. Economists have been telling us since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to recover from the pandemic is to end the pandemic. It's hard to end the pandemic when large chunks of society aren't cooperating.

Biden isn't alone among world leaders tanking in the polls. At the beginning of the pandemic, most leaders actually saw a rise in their poll numbers. Pollsters credited what's known as the "rally-round-flag effect" that tends to happen when nations face existential threats. But now leaders are struggling with surging prices and pandemic fatigue while the pandemic still rages.

Of the 13 global leaders tracked by Morning Consult, a polling company, only 5 have a net approval rating. An ideologically diverse group of leaders — from socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to centrist French President Emmanuel Macron to conservative U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — all now have approval ratings below 40%.

Unfortunately for President Biden, voters show a strong tendency to blame presidents for economic problems (and credit them for economic gains), whether or not their policies are the actual cause. The White House has been toying with a messaging strategy to try and deflect inflation blame onto the monopoly power and greed of Corporate America. So far, it doesn't seem to be working, and a report from The Washington Post says even some White House insiders dislike this approach. While monopoly power and greed do result in higher prices for consumers, there's no evidence to suggest that they've gotten worse and significantly driven prices up over the last year.

It's been said that sales of Halloween masks of presidential candidates can predict who will win presidential elections. If you're a Democrat, you should hope that sticker sales aren't a predictor for midterm elections.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.
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