Biden seeks to make economy an election asset - if prices ease

US President Joe Biden plans to argue that he and his fellow Democrats have helped steer the economy back to firmer footing. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden is trying to capitalise on a sudden spate of positive economic news to turn Democrats' biggest political liability into an unlikely election-year selling point.

Falling petrol prices, two major legislative victories and early signals that red-hot inflation may be easing have boosted Democrats' once improbable bid to retain their House and Senate majorities in the November midterms.

Mr Biden plans to argue Tuesday that he and his fellow Democrats have helped steer the economy back to firmer footing during a White House ceremony touting a sweeping new climate, energy and health care law dubbed the "Inflation Reduction Act".

The saliency of that message could be helped - or undercut - by the latest government inflation data, due for release just ahead of the event.

Also threatening to upend Mr Biden's strategy is the possibility of a rail strike that could snarl supply chains, disrupt agricultural deliveries and cost the US economy more than US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) a day. The Biden administration is pressuring labour unions and freight-rail operators to agree on a new contract before a Friday deadline.

Democrats have made some headway in eroding the advantage that inflation has afforded Republicans in the midterms, said Mr Brian Stryker, a partner at Democratic polling firm Impact Research, which aided Mr Biden's 2020 presidential campaign and consults with gubernatorial and congressional candidates.

The White House's effort to shift the narrative included Mr Biden's visit Friday to a construction site in Ohio, where Intel is building a new plant to make computer chips. The trip gave the president an opportunity to highlight legislation signed into law last month aimed at boosting domestic semiconductor manufacturing.

"Since I took office, our economy has created nearly 10 million new jobs, more than 668,000 manufacturing jobs - proof of point that 'Made in Ohio' and 'Made in America' is no longer just a slogan," Mr Biden said at the event. "It's a reality today. And it's just beginning."

Democrats should aim for a repeat of 2012, when then President Barack Obama was able to persuade enough voters to overlook an economic drawback - then, high unemployment - and grant him a second term, Mr Stryker said.

"Voters thought Obama was trying and that some of those efforts would bear fruit," he said. "That is where Democrats need to get voters."

Mr Biden's overall approval rating increased six percentage points to 44 per cent in late August, according to Gallup - his highest level in a year.

The president still earns especially low marks for his handling of the economy, but the proportion of Americans who cited inflation as their top concern headed into the midterms dropped from 37 per cent to 30 per cent in a Sept 8 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Mr Biden's recent legislative victories "are meaningful, both substantively and politically, and have marginally improved his approval ratings and attitudes about the direction of the country," Mr Doug Sosnik, former White House political director under President Bill Clinton, wrote in a recent memo.

"Historical political gravity is on the Republicans' side," he said, "but the Democrats head into the fall election with a stronger counter-narrative than they had in the spring." BLOOMBERG

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