President Biden on Wednesday insisted that his administration has made “incredible progress” on the economy and said the blame for inflation rests squarely with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he made a pitch to workers in a longtime bellwether state.
Mr. Biden, who faces stiff political headwinds amid 40-year high inflation and skyrocketing gas prices heading into November’s midterm elections, delivered the remarks on his sixth visit to Ohio since taking office in a bid to woo blue-collar union voters frustrated by the country’s economic woes.
“We made incredible progress on the economy from where we were a year and a half ago,” Mr. Biden told a room full of ironworkers at a union training center in Cleveland, arguing that the disruptions to world oil and food markets caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were the primary culprit behind rising prices.
“We’ve got a long way to go because of inflation,” he said. “I call it the ‘Putin tax increase.’”
The president’s trip was organized around the rollout of a program under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Mr. Biden signed into law in March of last year, designed to shore up multi-employer pensions which have faced significant cuts in recent years. Democrats have struggled to bank a major political payoff from the giant spending plan.
More than 200 multi-employer pension plans are on track to insolvency in the near future, according to White House figures. Without the Special Finance Assistance program, which allows pension plans to apply for federal assistance, up to three million workers who paid into their pensions would see their benefits cut in retirement, the administration warned.
But the president’s visit to Ohio, which former President Donald Trump carried in both 2016 and 2020, was a clear bid by Democrats to get out in front on pocketbook issues and claw back voters ahead of the midterm elections and leading up to 2024.
“It’s pretty clear Democrats and the president have some problems with blue-collar voters, at least blue-collar white voters,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “The very fact that he has issues with blue-collar voters is a good reason to go there and talk about blue-collar issues like jobs and pensions.”
But the president has significant ground to recover as Americans’ economic fears grow and as his poll numbers sink.
Critics have blasted the administration’s domestic spending agenda, including the $1.9 trillion legislation that included the pension assistance program that Mr. Biden unveiled on Wednesday, as a key driver behind inflation.
Mr. Biden has scrambled to control skyrocketing gas prices by pressuring Congress and the states to temporarily suspend gas taxes. He has also accused oil companies of profiteering with outsized price hikes at the pump as Americans hit the road for the summer driving season.
Congress has yet to act on the president’s proposal on the gas tax, but after reaching record highs last month world gas prices are on the decline in recent days.
The White House has also touted what it says is a strong labor market — the U.S. unemployment rate was just 3.6% in June and Ohio’s was only slightly higher at 3.9% — as a sign that Mr. Biden’s economic policies are having a positive effect.
But there seems little chance Democrats will be able to sidestep voter anger over inflation in upcoming elections, especially when it comes to lower-wage workers who are feeling the pinch.
“If [inflation] continues to rise, as it has been, that’s obviously a big problem for the president and Democrats,” Mr. Bannon said. “If it’s down significantly between now and Election Day, I think the other aspects of the president’s economic success will come more into play.”
Mr. Biden on Wednesday almost pleaded with Ohio voters to stick with the Democrats, in a state where the party thinks it has a chance of winning the open seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
He warned of what he said were Republican plans to cut social programs and raise taxes on the middle class, and blamed the GOP for standing in the way as Democrats fight to lower costs for the middle class.
“Now I’m fighting like hell to lower costs on things we talked about around your kitchen table,” he said. “That’s why elections have consequences. That’s why they matter.”