A distressed President Joe Biden is pulled in two different directions.
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President Joe Biden and his administration have been dealing with an internal dilemma for months now. With inflation and gas prices being the top issues on voters’ minds, there is a pressing need to show voters they care about the issue and are doing all they can to stymie the problem. Biden’s approval ratings are historically bad, and much of that has been attributed to these issues. The administration is aware of the inconvenient reality that there is close to nothing Biden can do to combat inflation and high gas prices. They have haplessly tried what they could, by releasing oil reserves for example, but there truly is no executive solution, and any makeshift attempts to solve the problem would simply have worse consequences.

This leaves Biden with two options, both of which are terrible. First, he can admit that there is practically nothing he can do to reverse what are, indeed, global issues. Or, at the risk of appearing inattentive, Biden can continue to argue that he can and will get gas prices and inflation down. Biden should choose the former.

It’s never good to give the American public a false sense of security, nor to mislead them about one’s abilities, especially given Biden’s promise to be frank with the American people. Instead, he should explain to the public how increased gas prices, along with inflation, are global issues. For example, the United Kingdom is seeing its highest inflation rate in 40 years. Explain that the brunt of the problems are a result of the pandemic (which damaged supply chains), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Big Oil insisting on maximizing profits and an increase in demand for oil and other commodities as the pandemic recedes.

Though it’s an admittedly risky strategy, there could be political benefits to Biden admitting that nothing he does will substantively solve the problem. Voters already have a false perception of the power of the presidency, often assuming the individual in office has much more immediate power and influence than they really do. This issue is compounded when the president pretends to have an ability they know they really don’t, as is the case for Biden. He previously made comments insinuating, or flat out saying, that his actions would result in lower gas prices and a slower rate of inflation. When he does this, voters rightfully assign him that power. Then, when gas prices and the Consumer Price Index fail to subside, he is stuck with the blame. Were Biden telling Americans the reality of the scope of his power, it would be harder for Americans to falsely assign him responsibility.

Thankfully, as of late, we have seen just that: more truth telling. Though not a full transition to frank talk about his lack of capabilities, Biden and administration officials have started to make it increasingly clear that this issue is out of Biden’s hands. “There’s a lot going on right now but the idea we’re going to be able to click a switch, bring down the cost of gasoline, is not likely in the near term. Nor is it with regard to food,” Biden said recently, while also being sure to correctly point out the causes for the price hikes. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg also recently quipped that the “price of gasoline is not set by a dial in the Oval Office.” And Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm hit the nail on the head, noting that Biden is obsessed with gas prices and the fact that people are hurting, but that “the president doesn’t control the price.” Empathy and realism: two tenets that should be the foundation of the Biden administration’s messaging on inflation and gas prices. 

None of this is to say Biden should turn away from the issue. In fact, he should lean into it, given its enormous political importance. Biden should focus on empathy, which is a strength of his, and hammer home to the American people that he understands the pain they are going through. Few economic issues are as easy to see as inflation and gas prices. While most of the economy is often overlooked by the common American who is not heavily engaged in political discussion, these aren’t those issues. 

Biden should continue to discuss how a strong economy is providing the country a needed cushion to survive increased gas prices and inflation and should remind Americans that these issues are global — far outside of one man’s, or even one country’s, control. Additionally, as is the crux of this argument, Biden should be candid, even when it means owning up to a mistake. He should admit that the American Rescue Plan played a role in causing current inflationary pressures, though its impact is minute in comparison to larger issues. This role, however, pales in comparison to the benefits provided by the plan, and he should articulate that, too. 

If and when small solutions arise, Biden should be quick to jump on them. Admitting reality doesn’t mean sleeping at the wheel. Lastly, Biden should look at alternative means of easing America’s economic pain, that of which he has the power to do.

When Biden pledged to not blame others and take accountability, he meant it. However, it does not mean he should take undue blame, nor assume a faux sense of control over an issue, even if a majority of voters erroneously feel that the president has such power. Worldwide inflation and increased gas prices are simply not a Joe Biden-created issue, and he should continue to say so.

Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at dehesano@umich.edu.