The White House has stumbled into a messaging problem when it comes to higher prices and empty shelves.
A week after Chief of Staff Ron Klain elicited pushback for retweeting an economist calling inflation and supply chain issues "high-class problems," Press Secretary Jen Psaki couldn't help but snark from the podium in response to a question about held up holiday goodies. "The tragedy of the treadmill that's delayed," she quipped. Her comment came on the heels of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attributing the spike in demand for consumer goods to President Biden having "successfully guided this economy out of the teeth of a terrifying recession."
The Biden administration obviously wants to play up the aspects of the economy that are good — new jobs, falling unemployment claims, businesses reopening as COVID-19 restrictions are shed and consumers return to the marketplace — while downplaying shortages in goods and labor that are less positive. And they clearly have an interest in arguing the inflation is transitory, as some economists agree, and wholly unrelated to the vast increases in government spending they are trying to get across the finish line in Congress.
But for people who are sensitive to what makes Republicans pounce, it seems like a strange opening to hand opponents who are going to say they're presenting inflation and shortages as a boutique, First World problem or, alternatively, a sign of how great things really are. And it does sit uneasily alongside all the things that the White House is also assuring the public it is doing to address the supply-chain issues — in particular, increasing port activity and addressing a backlog before the holiday shopping season begins in earnest.
Of course, inflation has remained a sticking point in the Democratic spending negotiations themselves, even leaving Republicans aside. Sen. Joe Manchin and the small number of moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill have made inflationary concerns a major reason for abandoning the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill — and they are making a lot of progress toward arriving at a top-line number closer to their own preferences.
So the desire to minimize these problems isn't working. And the administration is probably going to have to find a different way to talk about it that leaves them less vulnerable to Republican accusations of being out of touch.