WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the American people are “really, really down” after a tumultuous two years with the coronavirus pandemic, volatility in the economy and now surging gasoline prices that are slamming family budgets. But he stressed that a recession was “not inevitable” and held out hope of giving the country a greater sense of confidence.
Speaking to The Associated Press in a 30-minute Oval Office interview, the president emphasized the battered economy that he inherited and the lingering psychological scars caused by a pandemic that disrupted people’s sense of identity. He bristled at claims by Republican lawmakers that last year’s COVID-19 aid plan was fully to blame for inflation reaching a 40-year high, calling that argument “bizarre.”
As for the overall American mindset, Biden said, “People are really, really down.”
“Their need for mental health in America has skyrocketed because people have seen everything upset,” Biden said. “Everything they’ve counted on upset. But most of it’s the consequence of what happened, what happened as a consequence of the, the COVID crisis.”
That pessimism has carried over into the economy as record prices at the pump and persistent inflation have jeopardized Democrats’ ability to hold on to the House and Senate in the midterm elections. Biden addressed the warnings by economists that fighting inflation could tip United States into recession.
“First of all, it’s not inevitable,” he said. “Secondly, we’re in a stronger position than any nation in the world to overcome this inflation.”
As for the causes of inflation, Biden flashed some defensiveness on that count. “If it’s my fault, why is it the case in every other major industrial country in the world that inflation is higher? You ask yourself that? I’m not being a wise guy,” he said.
The president’s statement appeared to be about inflation rising worldwide, not necessarily whether countries had higher rates than the US annual inflation in Japan, for example, has risen in recent months though it’s still at a yearly rate of 2.4%, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The president said he saw a reason for optimism with the 3.6% unemployment rate and America’s relative strength in the world.
But restoring confidence so far has eluded Biden, whose approval ratings have been in steady decline as he has lost support among Democrats and has little evidence to show that he could restore a sense of bipartisan normalcy to Washington.
Biden’s Oval Office is filled with the portraits of presidents who faced crises that have imperiled the country, and the president acknowledged there were parallels to his own situation. A picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt hangs over his fireplace, a place of prominence because the historian Jon Meacham told Biden that no president had come into office with the economy in such dire circumstances. There is also a painting of Abraham Lincoln, who became president with a nation brutally divided and on the verge of the Civil War.
Yet Biden’s remedy is not that different from the diagnosis made by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979, when the US economy was crippled by stagflation. Carter said then the US was suffering from a “crisis of confidence” and “the erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
The president said he wants to endow the US with more verve, fortitude and courage.
“Be confident,” Biden said. “Because I am confident. We’re better positioned than any country in the world to own the second quarter of the 21st century.”
Biden’s bleak assessment of the national psyche comes as voters have soured on his job performance and the direction of the country. Only 39% of US adults approve of Biden’s performance as president, according to a May poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research, dipping from already negative ratings a month earlier.
Overall, only about 2 in 10 adults said the US is heading in the right direction or that the economy is good, both down from about 3 in 10 in April. Those drops were concentrated among Democrats, with just 33% within the president’s party saying the country is headed in the right direction.
Biden said Republican social policies were contributing to public anxieties. He suggested GOP lawmakers could face consequences in the midterms if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, possibly removing national protections for abortion access. Voters will consider the “failure of this Republican Party to be willing” to respond to “the basic social concerns of the country,” the president said. —PTI