WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and his administration went all out Thursday to play down a troubling new economic report that added to the evidence of a recession, trying to pull focus instead to major legislative progress on measures to tame inflation, reduce debt and preserve America's competitive edge.
The desire to accentuate the positive reflected the political tensions that are already playing out in the runup to the midterm elections. Republican lawmakers are sounding the alarm that a downturn has already started, a claim challenged by Biden and his fellow Democrats who wanted the public to instead focus on a pair of likely wins in Congress.
Thursday reflected the constant push-and-pull that has defined the Biden administration, in which any triumph can be overshadowed by a setback and the news cycle moves at a faster pace than victory laps. This created dueling narratives about where the country is.
Republicans said the report showing the economy shrank for the second consecutive quarter was evidence of a “Biden recession” at a time when inflation is at a four-decade high.
Biden, in turn, cited near-record-low unemployment and signs of continued business investment in the economy. He declared, “That doesn’t sound like recession to me.”
The president celebrated congressional passage of a $280 billion bipartisan package to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry and the sudden resurrection of a Democrats-only proposal to lower prescription drug costs, tackle climate change, fund the IRS, establish a minimum corporate tax and cut the deficit.
Other White House officials took Biden's cue and shrugged off the gross domestic product report showing the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.9%.
“Where we are right now is we’re on the cusp of doing really historic things that would help move the ball forward on the economy,” Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, told The Associated Press when asked about the troubling GDP report. "That’s our focus.”
In a rare press conference, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen allowed that Americans are fundamentally concerned about inflation, not the back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans about whether the GDP report shows that the economy has slid into a recession.
“We should avoid a semantic battle,” Yellen told reporters, adding that Americans’ “biggest concern is with inflation” and that they generally feel good about their ability to find a job and stay employed.
Still, the treasury secretary deployed some rhetoric of her own by saying that growth was “slowing,” when the GDP report showed that the economy has shrunk in size over the past six months.
The ultimate arbiter of whether the country is in a recession is the National Bureau of Economic Research, which might not make its determination for some time.
Yellen portrayed the slowdown as positive for an economy returning to normal after the pandemic, a contrast to the Republicans' argument that it was an unabashed failure caused by Democratic policies rather than a world's complicated attempt to re-emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
This debate trickled down to the semiconductor bill now awaiting Biden’s signature and new climate and drug pricing legislation that Democrats have dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022." The administration says both bills would combat inflation, while Republican opponents argue they will push prices higher.
“This morning the government announced what every American has been feeling for nearly a year — we are in a recession,” House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a floor speech. “Democrat spending caused this inflation. And now, they are doubling down on the same failed strategy.”
Other Republicans moved quickly to capitalize on the report, with the Republican National Committee declaring it indicative of “Biden’s Recession.”
Even the White House acknowledges that the legislative proposals won’t have an immediate effect on consumer prices or economic output, but it believes voters will reward Biden and Democrats for being seen as proposing solutions to the challenges affecting households' bottom lines.
Biden told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year that he sees his mission as giving Americans a renewed sense of confidence, yet the faith he seeks to keep and spread is constantly getting eroded because the losses are lingering in people’s memories and the wins are easily forgotten.
Even if a U.S. recession is an open question for economists, the matter of the economy's health is largely settled among voters.
Nearly 8 in 10 Americans described the U.S. economy as poor and roughly 7 in 10 disapproved of Biden’s economic leadership, according to a June survey by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Consumer sentiment as measured by the University of Michigan began to decline as inflation persisted as a threat, with confidence among Democrats relatively weak.
The Federal Reserve, which on Wednesday moved sharply to raise interest rates to further slow the economy in an effort to bring down inflation, signaled that more hikes are on the horizon in a sign that the battle against inflation — and the political skirmishes that follow — could continue well into this year's November elections.