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Inflation adds to voters' frustrations in a key congressional district

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Republican candidates like Tom Barrett are putting inflation, including high gas prices, at the center of their midterm messages. Barrett is challenging Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan's 7th Congressional District.
Asma Khalid, NPR

Republican candidates like Tom Barrett are putting inflation, including high gas prices, at the center of their midterm messages. Barrett is challenging Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan's 7th Congressional District.

Lisa Palmer feels like she spends $100 at the grocery store but walks out with only $70 worth of food.

"Everything's gone up," she said as she carried a bag of groceries in the parking lot at Meijer, a regional supermarket chain based in Michigan.

"I don't blame any one person," she said. "But yes, I blame the White House and Congress. That is their job to make America work if it's not working. It's so broken now ... we're just floundering."

Palmer's frustration is not isolated.

In poll after poll, voters seem frustrated with the general state of the country — a mix of being rattled by a pandemic that refuses to end and rising prices not seen in decades. And as a result, the president's approval rating has been stuck underwater since September.

"Voters have been in a really ornery mood," said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. In major part, that's because of inflation. On Tuesday, the Labor Department reported that consumer prices had jumped 8.5% compared to a year ago — the steepest climb since 1981.

"People don't think that Joe Biden caused the rising costs, but they do think that Democrats promised to get us back to pre-pandemic life. And that hasn't really completely happened yet," Erickson said.

Support comes from

And that poses a challenge for the president and his party. Midterm elections are generally tough for the party in power; they're seen as a referendum on the incumbent. And this year, some Democratic analysts are worried the typical trends could be worse because of Biden's poor poll numbers.

Republicans and Democrats are worried about inflation but see very different causes

Rising prices are the top economic concern for Americans these days; surveys often show it edging out other priorities like COVID-19, crime or the war in Ukraine.

The concern over inflation is nearly bipartisan. But the culprit is not.

"Inflation is hitting us pretty hard," said Michael Ovorus, a retired engineer from Hamburg, Mich., who says he first started noticing prices going up last summer. "But what can you expect with the COVID epidemic, where the economy stopped to like zero? It's one big mess. And it's going to take time to get through."

Ovorus, a Democrat, has an element of fatalism when he speaks about inflation. "The economy — it's a big ship to turn," he said.

He predicts inflation could last another year, if not longer. But like other Democrats, he doesn't fault the president for rising prices. Instead, Democrats, even if they are frustrated by rising prices, often blame the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin or corporations.

The economy, however, like many aspects of American life, is often viewed through a partisan lens.

And Republicans put the blame squarely on Biden.

"It seems every time I go down the row that something has gone up 5, 10, 15 cents," said Walt Hickok as he stepped into his car at the Walmart in Howell, Mich. "I don't know where it came from. I don't really attribute it to the war, because it started before the war."

Hickok, a self-described conservative, says ultimately he thinks the president is to blame.

"I think all the giving of money to everybody — the stimulus checks — it has not helped the country in my opinion, because now you find signs everywhere saying we need people to work," he said.

A recent letter from researchers at the San Francisco Federal Reserve suggested the U.S. is experiencing higher inflation than some other countries, in part, because of the massive pandemic aid packages Congress passed under both Donald Trump and Biden. The complication, these economists write, is that without those big spending measures the economy could have tipped into a recession.

The struggle for Biden is that inflation has hampered his legislative agenda, and even though there is little any president can realistically do to curb it, analysts say the president needs to look like he's trying because inflation is such a pervasive, tangible problem.

Gas prices are a big focus for Biden — and consumers

The price of gas, plastered on giant signs at every gas station, is one of the most noticeable increases. From January to March, the price of a gallon of regular gas jumped about 80 cents. The president and his team dubbed this increase "Putin's price hike."

But the nickname was not convincing to Americans who believed Biden has not been doing enough to help.

"We've got plenty of reserves here, there's no reason that we have to rely on other countries to get our oil," said Trevor Wilcox as he put groceries into the trunk of his car. His wife, Krista, a nurse, chimed in. She largely blames COVID for the sticker shock she feels at the grocery store — the reason why she's buying less fruit and vegetables and more generic products. But even she questions the rise in gas prices.

Last month, the president announced the largest ever release of oil from the strategic petroleum reserves: a million barrels of oil a day for six months.

This week, he announced a plan to allow the expanded usage of E15 gasoline, a blend of gas with a higher percentage of ethanol that has typically been banned during the summer.

Still, the president's approval rating has been hovering around 42% and he's hitting the road to try and boost it, making the E15 announcement at an ethanol facility in Iowa and traveling to North Carolina on Thursday to talk about supply chain issues.

The president has particularly struggled with support among young people

Young voters were key to Democratic wins in 2018 and 2020. But earlier this year, Gallup found Biden's support among 18- to 29-year-olds had crumbled to an abysmal 31%. It has since rebounded some, but the skepticism of Biden persists.

"He hasn't fulfilled his promises," said Brady McAdams, a 19-year-old nursing student at Michigan State University. "He's not doing enough for the people he said he would."

Her major complaint is the lack of student loan forgiveness. Other young people point to the lack of action on immigration or the minimum wage.

Supporters of the president think the criticism in unfair. Biden, they say, is being unfairly blamed for an uncooperative Congress and a pandemic. Plus, they point to low unemployment, the infrastructure bill and the nomination of the country's first Black woman on the Supreme Court as evidence the president has moved the country in the right direction.

Biden's base seems less enthusiastic than during the 2018 Democratic wave

Four years ago, suburban women like Brenda Lindsay from Howell, Mich., voted in droves to give Democrats key victories in the 2018 midterms. Lindsay is an organizer with Indivisible, the grassroots progressive group that sprang up after Trump's election in 2016, and she remembers the energy she saw around her in Livingston County during that campaign season.

She doesn't see anything akin to that this year.

"There's less enthusiasm," she flatly said. For Lindsay, there is no doubt she'll vote for Democrats this fall, and her loyal members will too. They're activists.

But Lindsay is worried because that's not enough to win.

"We're suffering incredibly from messaging and holding others accountable right now," she said. "It's not that [Biden] himself is terrible. It's the Democrats aren't as effective as they need to be with messaging. ... Should messaging come from the president? I don't know."

The message — or lack of a message — coming out of Washington has frustrated Lindsay. And so she and other local Democrats are trying to create their own story to help people running for office.

That could be tough.

"If the president's approval rating is 42%, it's gonna be difficult for anyone to outperform him by 9 or 10 points," said Erickson. "That's very difficult in modern politics."

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