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    Biden Portrays Next Phase of Economic Agenda as Middle-Class Lifeline

    The president used his State of the Union speech to pitch tax increases for the rich, along with plans to cut costs and protect consumers.President Biden used his State of the Union speech on Thursday to remind Americans of his efforts to steer the nation’s economy out of a pandemic recession, and to lay the groundwork for a second term focused on making the economy more equitable by raising taxes on companies and the wealthy while taking steps to reduce costs for the middle class.Mr. Biden offered a blitz of policies squarely targeting the middle class, including efforts to make housing more affordable for first-time home buyers. The president used his speech to try and differentiate his economic proposals with those supported by Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump. Those proposals have largely centered on cutting taxes, rolling back the Biden administration’s investments in clean energy and gutting the Internal Revenue Service.Many of Mr. Biden’s policy proposals would require acts of Congress and hinge on Democrats winning control of the House and the Senate. However, the president also unveiled plans to direct federal agencies to use their powers to reduce costs for big-ticket items like housing at a time when the lingering effects of inflation continue to weigh on economic sentiment.From taxes and housing to inflation and consumer protection, Mr. Biden had his eye on pocketbook issues.Raising Taxes on the RichMany of the tax cuts that Mr. Trump signed into law in 2017 are set to expire next year, making tax policy among the most critical issues on the ballot this year.On Thursday night, Mr. Biden built upon many of the tax proposals that he has been promoting for the last three years, calling for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay more. He proposed raising a new corporate minimum tax to 21 percent from 15 percent and proposed a new 25 percent minimum tax rate for billionaires, which he said would raise $500 billion over a decade.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    Biden Targets a New Economic Villain: Shrinkflation

    Liberals prodded the president for years to blame big corporations for price increases. He is finally doing so, in the grocery aisle.On Super Bowl Sunday, the White House released a short video in which a smiling President Biden, sitting next to a table stocked with chips, cookies and sports drinks, slammed companies for reducing the package size and portions of popular foods without an accompanying reduction in price.“I’ve had enough of what they call shrinkflation,” Mr. Biden declared.The video lit up social media and delighted a consumer advocate named Edgar Dworsky, who has studied “shrinkflation” trends for more than a decade. He has twice briefed Mr. Biden’s economic aides, first in early 2023 and again a few days before the video aired. The first briefing seemed to lead nowhere. The second clearly informed Mr. Biden’s new favorite economic argument — that companies have used a rapid run-up in prices to pad their pockets by keeping those prices high while giving consumers less.The products arrayed in the president’s video, like Oreos and Wheat Thins, were all examples of the shrinkflation that Mr. Dworsky had documented on his Consumer World website.While inflation is moderating, shoppers remain furious over the high price of groceries. Mr. Biden, who has seen his approval ratings suffer amid rising prices, has found a blame-shifting message he loves in the midst of his re-election campaign: skewering companies for shrinking the size of candy bars, ice cream cartons and other food items, while raising prices or holding them steady, even as the companies’ profit margins remain high.The president has begun accusing companies of “ripping off” Americans with those tactics and is considering new executive actions to crack down on the practice, administration officials and other allies say, though they will not specify the steps he might take. He is also likely to criticize shrinkflation during his State of the Union address next week.Mr. Biden could also embrace new legislation seeking to empower the Federal Trade Commission to more aggressively investigate and punish corporate price gouging, including in grocery stories.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    Taking on Trump, Biden Promotes ‘Infrastructure Decade’ in Wisconsin

    The president made the trip to promote a $1 billion infrastructure project, contrasting his performance with the chaotic “Infrastructure Week” plans of former President Donald J. Trump.Consumer confidence is up. Fears of a recession are abating. The economy is growing. And a corroded bridge in Wisconsin is receiving more funding.It is a wintry mix of positive news for President Biden, who traveled to the shores of a bay near Lake Superior on Thursday to stand at the foot of the Blatnik Bridge, a structure that his administration said would have failed by 2030 without a $1 billion infusion provided by the bipartisan infrastructure law that Mr. Biden championed.The president was there to talk infrastructure and the economy, and to contrast his performance with that of his predecessor and likely challenger in the general election , former President Donald J. Trump.“The economic growth is stronger than we had during the Trump administration,” Mr. Biden, dressed in a casual pullover sweater, said as he addressed Wisconsinites assembled at Earth Rider Brewery in Superior, Wis. “We obviously have more work to do, but we’re making real progress.”As the president spoke, Mr. Trump was taking the stand in a defamation trial in New York, offering a striking split-screen comparison that the Biden campaign has welcomed.Mr. Biden and his advisers believe projects like the Blatnik, taking place in the backyards of Americans living in battleground states like Wisconsin, could be enough to bolster optimism and overcome pervasive skepticism about the state of the economy.In his event, Mr. Biden talked about the $6.1 billion that had been invested in Wisconsin and the $5.7 billion in Minnesota, located just over the bridge, which supports agriculture, shipping and forestry industries in the upper Midwest. The Blatnik, which spans the St. Louis Bay and connects the ports of Superior and Duluth, Minn., had corroded and been clogged with construction and detours.“For decades people talked about replacing this bridge, but it never got done,” Mr. Biden said. “Until today.”Bipartisan law or not, no Republican lawmakers assembled to greet Mr. Biden. (“I’m sorry to say the vast majority voted against it,” Mr. Biden said, a number that includes Rep. Tom Tiffany, a Republican representing the district where the bridge is located.)“The economic growth is stronger than we had during the Trump administration,” Mr. Biden said.Michael A. McCoy for The New York TimesThe Democratic governors of both Wisconsin and Minnesota showed up. “This would not have happened without Biden,” Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin told attendees.Several other Democrats, including Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, accompanied the president as he observed the bridge and, later, met with people at a taproom next to the brewery. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota sipped a glass of beer as she mingled next to Mr. Biden.Even without no-show Republicans, who are quickly closing ranks around Mr. Trump, there are other headwinds to overcome.Mr. Biden has faced low approval ratings on the economy. And he has been criticized by other Democrats over whether it was smart of him to adopt Bidenomics as a namesake effort to take credit for an economy that Americans have repeatedly signaled they don’t feel excited about.On Thursday, Mr. Biden did not seem to be feeling any qualms. In the brewery, he stood in front of a pole that had letters spelling “Bidenomics,” and assailed Mr. Trump for “hollowed-out communities, closing down factories, leaving Americans behind.”For his part, Mr. Trump has attacked Mr. Biden on just about everything, but has also falsely claimed that low employment numbers under the Biden administration are not real.Elsewhere in the Midwest, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen took rare aim at Mr. Trump during a speech in Chicago.“Our country’s infrastructure has been deteriorating for decades,” Ms. Yellen said on Thursday. “In the Trump administration, the idea of doing anything to fix it was a punchline.”There was truth to her comment. During Mr. Trump’s presidency, he would often veer away from infrastructure-related speeches to attack his enemies. In his first Infrastructure Week-themed event in 2017, he accused James B. Comey, whom he had fired as F.B.I. director, of committing perjury and of leaking to the news media. He later proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package without specifics on how he’d get the money. The phrase “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke in Washington.In November 2021, Mr. Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law.“Instead of infrastructure week, America is having an infrastructure decade,” Mr. Biden said on Thursday, referring to the work his administration has done.In a show of how significant Wisconsin will be ahead of the election in November, Mr. Biden traveled there just three days after Vice President Kamala Harris began a nationwide tour for reproductive rights in an event outside Milwaukee. Wisconsin is a battleground state where his campaign is focusing on courting Black voters, young voters and any voters who might help him wrest the state’s 10 electoral votes from Mr. Trump.Though Mr. Trump was in court, the Republican National Committee released a statement criticizing Mr. Biden for making the trip and blaming Bidenomics for economic problems.“With staggering inflation and negative economic growth, Wisconsinites are feeling the brunt of Joe Biden’s failures,” the group’s chairman, Ronna McDaniel, said in a statement. “Try as he might, it’s too little, too late to impress workers and families who are living paycheck to paycheck thanks to Bidenomics.”Alan Rappeport More

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    Even Most Biden Voters Don’t See a Thriving Economy

    A majority of those who backed President Biden in 2020 say today’s economy is fair or poor, ordinarily a bad omen for incumbents seeking re-election.Presidents seeking a second term have often found the public’s perception of the economy a pivotal issue. It was a boon to Ronald Reagan; it helped usher Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush out of the White House.Now, as President Biden looks toward a re-election campaign, there are warning signals on that front: With overall consumer sentiment at a low ebb despite solid economic data, even Democrats who supported Mr. Biden in 2020 say they’re not impressed with the economy.In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of voters in six battleground states, 62 percent of those voters think the economy is only “fair” or “poor” (compared with 97 percent for those who voted for Donald J. Trump).What the Economy Looks Like to Biden Voters in Swing StatesPercent of President Biden’s 2020 supporters who …

    Notes: Respondents of other races were omitted because of low sample sizes. The figures may not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.Source: New York Times/Siena College polls of 3,662 registered voters conducted Oct. 22 to Nov. 3 in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and WisconsinBy The New York TimesThe demographics of Mr. Biden’s 2020 supporters may explain part of his challenge now: They were on balance younger, had lower incomes and were more racially diverse than Mr. Trump’s. Those groups tend to be hit hardest by inflation, which has yet to return to 2020 levels, and high interest rates, which have frustrated first-time home buyers and drained the finances of those dependent on credit.But if the election were held today, and the options were Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, it’s not clear whether voter perceptions of the economy would tip the balance.“The last midterm was an abortion election,” said Joshua Doss, an analyst at the public opinion research firm HIT Strategies, referring to the 2022 voting that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. “Most of the time, elections are about ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Republicans lost that because of Roe. So we’re definitely in uncharted territory.”There are things working in Mr. Biden’s favor. First, Mr. Doss said, the economic programs enacted under the Biden administration remain broadly popular, providing a political foundation for Mr. Biden to build on. And second, social issues — which lifted the Democrats in the midterms — remain a prominent concern.Take Oscar Nuñez, 27, a server at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Foot traffic has been much slower than usual for this time of year, eating into his tips. He’d like to start his own business, but with the rising cost of living, he and his wife — who works at home answering questions from independent contractors for her employer — haven’t managed to save much money. It’s also a tough jump to make when the economy feels shaky.Mr. Nuñez expected better from Mr. Biden when he voted blue in 2020, he said, but he wasn’t sure what specifically the president should have done better. And he is pretty sure another Trump term would be a disaster.“I’d prefer another option, but it seems like it will once again be my only option again,” Mr. Nuñez said of Mr. Biden. For him, immigrants’ rights and foreign policy concerns are more important. “That’s why I was picking him over Trump in the first place — because this guy’s going to do something that’s real dangerous at some point.”Mr. Nuñez isn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied with the economy but still bound to Mr. Biden by other priorities. Of those surveyed in the six battleground states who plan to vote for Mr. Biden in 2024, 47 percent say social issues are more important to them, while 42 percent say the economy is more important — but that’s a closer split than in the 2022 midterms, in which social issues decisively outweighed economic concerns among Democratic voters in several swing states. (Among likely Trump voters, 71 percent say they are most focused on the economy, while 15 percent favor social issues.)Kendra McDowell thinks President Biden is doing the best he can given the continuing challenges of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. “People are shopping — you know why? Because they’ve got jobs,” she said.Hannah Yoon for The New York TimesDour sentiment about the economy also isn’t limited to people who’ve been frustrated in their financial ambitions.Mackenzie Kiser, 20, and Lawson Millwood, 21, students at the University of North Georgia, managed to buy a house this year. Mr. Millwood’s income as an information-technology systems administrator at the university was enough to qualify, and they worried that affordability would only worsen if they waited because of rising interest rates and prices. Still, the experience left a bitter taste.“The housing market is absolutely insane,” said Ms. Kiser, who wasn’t old enough to vote in 2020 but leans progressive. “We paid the same for our one-story, one-bedroom cinder-block 1950s house as my mom paid for her three-story, four-bedroom house less than a decade ago.”Ms. Kiser doesn’t think Mr. Biden has done much to help the economy, and she worries he’s too old to be effective. But Mr. Trump isn’t more appealing on that front.“It’s not that I think that anybody of a different party could do better, but more that someone with their mental faculties who’s not retirement age could do a better job,” Ms. Kiser said. “Our choices are retirement age or retirement age, so it’s rock and a hard place right now.”Generally, voters don’t think Republicans are fixing the economy, either. In a poll conducted this month by the progressive-leaning Navigator Research, 70 percent of voters in battleground House districts, including a majority of Republicans, said they thought Republicans were more focused on issues other than the economy.The health of the economy is still a major variable leading up to the election. A downturn could fray what the president cites as a signal accomplishment of Bidenomics: low unemployment. A study of the 2016 election found that higher localized unemployment made Black voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, less likely to vote at all.“I think the likelihood that they would choose Trump is not the threat,” Mr. Doss said. “The threat is that they would choose the couch and stay home, and enough of them would stay home for an electoral college win for Trump.”But in the absence of a competitive Democratic primary, the campaigning — and television spots — have yet to commence in earnest. When they do, Mr. Doss has some ideas.So far, Mr. Biden’s messaging has focused on macroeconomic indicators like the unemployment rate and tackling inflation. “The truth is, that’s not the economy to most people,” Mr. Doss said. “The economy to most people is gas prices and food and whether or not they can afford to throw a birthday party for their kid.”Mr. Millwood supports a higher federal minimum wage, and is impatient with the bickering and finger pointing he hears about in Washington.Audra Melton for The New York TimesIt’s difficult for presidents to directly control inflation in the short term. But the White House has addressed a few specific costs that matter for families, by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to contain surging oil prices in late 2022, for example. The Inflation Reduction Act reduced prescription drug prices under Medicare and capped the cost of insulin for people with diabetes. The administration is also going after what it calls “junk fees,” which inflate the prices of things like concert tickets, airline tickets and even birthday parties.The more the administration talks about its concrete efforts to lower prices, the more Mr. Biden will benefit, Mr. Doss said. At the same time, Mr. Biden can lessen the blowback from persistent inflation by deflecting blame — an out-of-control pandemic was the original cause, he could plausibly argue, and most other wealthy countries are worse off.That’s how it seems to Kendra McDowell, 44, an accountant and single mother of four in Harrisburg, Pa. She feels the sting of inflation every time she goes to the grocery store — she spent $1,000 on groceries this past month and didn’t even fill her deep freezer — and in the health of her clients’ balance sheets. Despite her judgment that the economy is poor, however, she still has enough confidence to start a business in home-based care, a field in greater demand since Covid-19 ripped through nursing homes.“When I talk about the economy, it’s just inflation, and to me inflation is systemic and coming from the Trump administration,” Ms. McDowell said. If the pandemic had been contained quickly, she reasoned, supply chains and labor disruptions wouldn’t have sent prices soaring in the first place.Moreover, she sees the situation healing itself, and thinks Mr. Biden is doing the best he can given the challenges of the wars in Ukraine and now Gaza. “People are shopping — you know why? Because they’ve got jobs,” Ms. McDowell said. “God forbid, today or tomorrow, if I had to go find a job, it’s easier than it was before.”Ms. McDowell is what’s known in public opinion research as a high-information voter. Polls have shown that those less apt to stay up on the news tend to change their views when provided with more background on what the Biden administration has both accomplished and attempted.Ms. McDowell, a mother of four, said that she felt the sting of inflation every time she went to the grocery store, but that she didn’t blame Mr. Biden.Hannah Yoon for The New York TimesThe 15-month-old Inflation Reduction Act is still little known, for example. But this past March, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 68 percent of respondents supported it when filled in on its main components.A frequent theme of conversations with Democratic voters who see the economy as poor is that large corporations have too much power and that the middle class is being squeezed.Mr. Millwood, Ms. Kiser’s partner, said that he was concerned that society had grown more unequal in recent years, and that he didn’t see Mr. Biden doing much about it.“From what I see, it really doesn’t look like the working class is benefiting from many things recently,” said Mr. Millwood, who supports a higher federal minimum wage and is impatient with the bickering and finger pointing he hears about in Washington.After the phone conversation ended, Mr. Millwood texted to say that upon reflection, he would also like to see Mr. Biden push to lower taxes for low-income families and make it more difficult for the wealthiest to dodge them. After being sent news articles about Mr. Biden’s support for the extension of the now-expired Child Tax Credit and the appropriation of $80 billion for the Internal Revenue Service, in part to pursue tax evaders, he seemed surprised.“That is absolutely what I had in mind,” Mr. Millwood texted. “It’s been so noisy in the media lately I haven’t seen much that is covering things like that,” adding, “Biden doesn’t seem so bad after all haha.”Ruth Igielnik More

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    On the Economy, Biden Struggles to Convince Voters of His Success

    Wages are up, inflation has slowed and the White House has a new slogan. Still, President Biden’s poor marks on the economy are making Democrats worried.When a chant slamming President Biden spread from a NASCAR race to T-shirts and bumper stickers across red America two years ago, the White House pulled off perhaps its savviest messaging feat to date. Biden aides and allies repackaged the “Let’s Go Brandon” insult and morphed it into “Dark Brandon,” a celebratory meme casting Mr. Biden as some sort of omnipotent mastermind.Now, the White House and the Biden campaign is several weeks into another appropriation play — but it isn’t going nearly as well. Aides in July announced that the president would run for re-election on the virtues of “Bidenomics,” proudly reclaiming the right’s derisive term for Mr. Biden’s economic policies.The gambit does not appear to be working yet. Even as Mr. Biden presides over what is by all indicators a strong economy — one on track to dodge the recession many had feared — he is still struggling to convince most of the country of the strength of his economic stewardship. Wages are up, inflation has slowed, but credit to the president remains in short supply.Polling last month from the Democratic organization Navigator found that 25 percent of Americans support Mr. Biden’s major actions, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, but still think the president is doing a poor job handling the economy. It’s a group that tends to be disproportionately younger than 40 and is more likely to be Black or Latino — voters critical to Democratic victories.“This is the thing that’s vexing all Democrats,” said Patrick Gaspard, the president of the Center for American Progress.Democratic economists, pollsters and officials have a variety of explanations for why voters don’t credit Mr. Biden for the economy. Inflation remains elevated, and interest rates have made home buying difficult. There is also evidence that voters’ views on the economy are shaped as much by their political views as by personal experiences.And then there is the regular refrain that people don’t know about Mr. Biden’s successes. Even Mr. Biden’s supporters say that he and his administration have been too reluctant to promote their record and ineffective when they do.“I’ve never seen this big of a disconnect between how the economy is actually doing and key polling results about what people think is going on,” said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.Mr. Biden on Friday attempted another victory lap in a White House speech celebrating the latest jobs report, which found no sign of an imminent recession and a slight increase in the unemployment rate as more people sought work. He credited the heart of his economic plan, including investment in infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing and climate-related industries along with caps on the price of insulin medication.Bidenomics, Mr. Biden said, “is about investing in America and investing in Americans.”Mr. Biden said his economic plan was to credit for the latest jobs report, which found no sign of an imminent recession and a slight increase in the unemployment rate as more people sought work.Kent Nishimura for The New York TimesThe term Bidenomics emerged as a pejorative in conservative media and has been widely adopted by Mr. Biden’s rivals. “One of the most important issues of the campaign will be who can rescue our country from the burning wreckage of Bidenomics,” former President Donald J. Trump said in a recent video, “which shall henceforth be defined as inflation, taxation submission and failure.”Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida offered his definition at a recent campaign stop in Rock Rapids, Iowa. “Bidenomics is basically: You have a lower standard of living so he can pursue the left’s ideological agenda,” he said.Behind the rhetoric, there is some debate over whether the economy will be the driving force it has been in past presidential elections. Some Democrats argue that their party’s resilience in last year’s midterm elections showed that the fight over abortion rights and Mr. Trump’s influence over Republicans can trounce more kitchen-table concerns.The White House argues that Democrats’ strong showing last year is a sign the Mr. Biden’s electoral performance isn’t strictly tied to the economy.“By all metrics, his economic record has improved since then,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman.Still, nearly all of Mr. Biden’s campaign advertising this year sells his economic record. The ads — which don’t use the term Bidenomics — cast the president’s policies as a work in progress. “All of the things that Biden fought to get passed helped the middle class,” a cement mason from Milwaukee says in an ad the campaign released last week.“It’s no secret that a lot of Americans are struggling with the cost of living, and that’s a reality that shapes their views about the economy more broadly,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster who conducts surveys for the Democratic National Committee.Explaining why Mr. Biden’s policies will help, Mr. Garin said, “is what campaigns are for.”This summer Mr. Biden has promoted “Bidenomics” at events around the country, often speaking in factories or with labor groups. Even some in friendly audiences of local Democratic leaders and supporters questioned whether his emphasis would resonate with the coalition that elected him in 2020.“Is Bidenomics the right thing to sell?” Mayor Katie Rosenberg of Wausau, Wis., said after seeing Mr. Biden speak in Milwaukee last month. “I just keep thinking, why aren’t they just doing Build Back Better still? That was a really good slogan. Bidenomics is just an effort to capitalize on the negativity around him.”Build Back Better, the mix of economic, climate and social policy that Mr. Biden ran on in 2020, was a bumper-sticker-length encapsulation of Mr. Biden’s ambitions as president. Significant elements became law, but the branding exercise failed, doomed in part by rising inflation.Mr. Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan was a bumper-sticker-length encapsulation of his ambitions as president.Hannah Yoon for The New York TimesDemocrats rebranded their climate legislation as the Inflation Reduction Act, even though the bill had little to do with inflation. Even Mr. Biden recently said that he regretted the name, suggesting that it promised something the bill was not devised to deliver.Though the rate of inflation has slowed, it remains the chief drag on Mr. Biden’s economic approval ratings, said Joanne Hsu, the director of Surveys of Consumers at the University of Michigan.“We track people who have heard negative news about inflation,” Dr. Hsu said. “Over the past year, that number has been much higher than in the 1970s and ’80s, when inflation was so much worse.”One theme of Mr. Biden’s aides, advisers and allies is to plead for time. The economy will get better, more people will hear and understand what Bidenomics means and credit will accrue to the president, they say.“The public more and more is going to be seeing low unemployment and will continue to get more bullish on the economy,” said Representative Robert Garcia of California, a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board. “But I also understand it’s very hard for people now. We just can’t expect overnight for people to feel better about the economy.”For most Americans, their views on the economy are directly tied to their partisan leanings — a phenomenon that is particularly acute for Republicans. In 2016, before Mr. Trump took office, just 18 percent of Republicans rated the economy excellent or good, according to a Pew Research survey. By February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down public life in America, 81 percent of Republicans said the economy was excellent or good.An Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month found just 8 percent of Republicans, along with 65 percent of Democrats, approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the economy.Mr. Biden’s sympathizers say part of his problem on the economy is an unwillingness to promote its bright spots out of fear of seeming insensitive to Americans struggling with higher prices. Mr. Trump had no such restraint, describing the economy as the best in history and the envy of the world. Using “Bidenomics” as a framework lets the president take ownership of the economy, but it doesn’t exactly tell voters that the economy is great.“Trump chose people who were probably less experienced in terms of making policy, but some of them are quite good about talking up the president,” said Ben Harris, a former top Treasury official in the Biden administration who played a leading role in outlining the Build Back Better agenda during the 2020 campaign. “Biden’s taken a more modest and humble approach, and there’s a chance that’s come back to haunt him.”Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, said there was a regular debate in that White House about how much to sell the public on the idea that the economy was improving even if people didn’t feel in their own lives.Now he said it was difficult for the Biden administration to take victory laps over slowing inflation because wages haven’t kept pace, leaving a typical worker about $2,000 behind compared with before the pandemic.“The way to think about that is people were in an incredibly deep hole because of inflation and we’re still not all the way out of that hole,” Mr. Furman said. “The fact that you protected people in the bad times means the good times don’t feel as good.”Nicholas Nehamas More

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    Biden’s Debt Ceiling Strategy: Win in the Fine Print

    The president and his negotiators believe they worked out a deal that allowed Republicans to claim big spending cuts even as the reality was far more modest.Shalanda Young couldn’t sleep.A small team of Biden administration officials had spent the past two days in intense negotiations with House Republicans in an attempt to avert a catastrophic government default. Ms. Young, the White House budget director, had been trading proposals on federal spending caps with negotiators deputized by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose Republican caucus was refusing to raise the nation’s $31.4 trillion borrowing limit without deep cuts.Now, as she scrolled Netflix in search of “bad television” to distract her racing mind, Ms. Young had a sinking feeling. What if she cut a deal to reduce spending and raise the debt limit, only to see Republicans attempt to force through much deeper cuts when it came time to pass annual appropriations bills this fall?At work the next morning, Ms. Young asked her staff how to stop that from happening. They settled on a plan, which in essence would penalize Republicans’ most cherished spending programs if they failed to follow the contours of the agreement. Then they forced Republicans to include that plan in the legislative text codifying the deal.That approach reflected a broader strategy President Biden’s team followed in the debt limit negotiations, according to interviews with current and former administration officials, some Republicans and other people familiar with the talks.On Saturday, that strategy reached its conclusion as Mr. Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 into law, just days before a potential default and following weeks of talks and a revolt from right-wing lawmakers in the House that put an agreement at risk of collapse.In pursuit of an agreement, the Biden team was willing to give Republicans victory after victory on political talking points, which they realized Mr. McCarthy needed to sell the bill to his conference. They let Mr. McCarthy’s team claim in the end that the deal included deep spending cuts, huge clawbacks of unspent federal coronavirus relief money and stringent work requirements for recipients of federal aid.But in the details of the text and the many side deals that accompanied it, the Biden team wanted to win on substance. With one large exception — a $20 billion cut in enforcement funding for the Internal Revenue Service — they believe they did.The way administration officials see it, the full final agreement’s spending cuts are nothing worse than they would have expected in regular appropriations bills passed by a divided Congress. They agreed to structure the cuts so they appeared to save $1.5 trillion over a decade in the eyes of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But thanks to the side deals — including some accounting tricks — White House officials estimate that the actual cuts could total as little as $136 billion over the two enforceable years of the spending caps that are central to the agreement.Much of the $30 billion in clawed-back Covid-19 money was probably never going to be spent, Biden officials say, including dollars from an aviation manufacturing jobs program that had basically ended.At one point in the talks, administration officials offered to include in the deal more than 100 relief programs from which they were willing to rescind money. The final list spanned 20 pages of a 99-page bill, and Mr. McCarthy championed it on the House floor. But because much of the money was repurposed for other spending, the net savings added up to only about $11 billion over two years. One of the programs had a remaining balance of just $40.Many Democrats remain furious that the deal included new work requirements that could push 750,000 people off food stamps, which the Biden team begrudgingly concluded it had to accept.That measure alone could have tanked Democratic support for the deal in Congress, officials knew. So they sought to counterbalance it with efforts to expand food stamp eligibility for veterans, the homeless and others, which Republicans agreed to do. The budget office concluded that the changes would actually add recipients to the program, on net.Some Democrats and progressive groups have sharply criticized Mr. Biden for negotiating over the debt limit at all, denouncing the spending cuts and work requirements and saying he cemented Republicans’ ability to ransom the borrowing limit whenever a Democrat occupies the White House.Republican negotiators sold the deal as a game-changing blow to Mr. Biden’s spending ambitions. “They absolutely have tire tracks on them in this negotiation,” Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana said before the House vote on Wednesday.Mr. Biden views it differently. As the Senate prepared to pass the agreement on Thursday evening, he huddled with his chief of staff, Jeffrey D. Zients, along with Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, and other aides, in Mr. Zients’s office in the West Wing of the White House. Mr. Biden asked them what you might call a scorecard question: What percentage of Democrats in the House had voted for the deal, and what share were expected to in the Senate?When Mr. Ricchetti told him the number of Democrats would be larger, in both chambers, than the share of Republicans supporting the deal, Mr. Biden was pleased. It was validation, in his view, that he had cut a good deal.Mr. Zients referred to that vote share in an interview on Friday. “If you go back a few months ago, no one would have thought this was possible,” he said.It was not an assured outcome. The negotiating teams came to the table with divergent views of the drivers of federal debt in recent years. White House negotiators blamed Republican tax cuts. Republicans blamed Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, including a debt-financed Covid relief bill in 2021 and a bipartisan infrastructure bill later that year.The dispute occasionally grew profane. At one point, after Mr. Biden’s negotiators criticized the 2017 Republican tax cuts, a “very mild-mannered” aide to Mr. McCarthy stood up, shook his finger at the Biden team and hotly responded that their argument was nonsense, using a vulgarity, Mr. Graves recounted.Mr. Biden had insisted for months that he would not negotiate over raising the borrowing limit. But privately, many aides had been planning on talks all along — though they refused to admit those talks were linked to the debt limit. The Biden team reasoned that it would have to negotiate fiscal issues this year anyway, both on appropriations bills and on programs like food stamps that are included in a regularly reauthorized farm bill.Mr. Biden’s economic advisers, including Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, were warning of catastrophic damage to the economy if the government could no longer pay its bills on time.The president appeared to score wins before the talks even started. He goaded Republicans into agreeing, in the midst of his State of the Union address, that Social Security and Medicare would be off limits in the talks — thanks to a spontaneous riff that grew out of a passage in his speech that he had worked on extensively in the days beforehand. He proposed a budget filled with tax increases on the rich and corporations that were meant to reduce debt, but he refused to engage Mr. McCarthy in serious talks until Republicans offered a spending plan of their own.In late April, the House passed a bill that included $4.7 trillion in savings from spending cuts, canceling clean-energy tax breaks and clawing back money for Covid relief and the I.R.S. It featured work requirements and measures to speed fossil fuel projects, and it raised the debt limit for one year.Mr. Biden, under fire from business groups and others who feared the standoff could result in the United States running out of money before the debt limit was raised, soon agreed to designate a team of negotiators. The White House team was led by officials including Ms. Young and one of her top aides, Michael Linden, who delayed his departure from the White House to help negotiate along with Louisa Terrell, the legislative affairs director, and Mr. Ricchetti.Mr. McCarthy’s negotiators gave Biden officials the impression that to reach agreement, they needed at least one talking point from every major aspect of the House Republican debt limit bill.The talks took a few surprising turns. Multiple White House officials say the Republican team briefly entertained relatively modest proposals to raise tax revenue, including closing loopholes that benefit some real-estate owners and people who trade cryptocurrency. Those discussions stalled quickly.Democrats agreed to fast-track a natural gas pipeline, in what officials concede was making good on a promise to Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, for backing Mr. Biden’s signature climate law last year.The spending caps ended up roughly where many Biden aides had predicted they would in private discussions months ago. But few White House officials believed they would have to give up $20 billion of the $80 billion that Democrats approved last year to help the I.R.S. crack down on tax cheats. Mr. Biden hammered out the amount in a final call with Mr. McCarthy.Ms. Young said that cut was painful. “And not just for me,” she added. “It’s something we talked to the president about many times. He cares deeply about this.”On Thursday evening in Mr. Zients’s office, the president and his team were focused on upsides. They had beaten back Republican attempts to cancel the climate law, to add new work requirements on Medicaid recipients and to impose binding spending caps for a decade. Mr. Biden was particularly pleased to spare key veterans’ programs from cuts.On Friday morning, Mr. Zients gathered core officials in his office, as he had every day, seven days a week, for several weeks running. Ms. Brainard and the economic team were relieved to have cleared the threat of default not just for this year, but through the next presidential election. Aides worked on honing Mr. Biden’s planned remarks in an Oval Office address on Friday evening.The speech started at 7:01 p.m., unusually promptly for Mr. Biden. By then, his staff was already celebrating. An hour earlier, happy hour had begun in Mr. Zients’s office.Catie Edmondson More

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    The Debt-Ceiling Deal Suggests Debt Will Keep Growing, Fast

    The bipartisan deal to avert a government default this week featured modest cuts to a relatively small corner of the federal budget. As a curb on the growth of the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt load, it was a minor breakthrough, at best.It also showed how difficult — perhaps impossible — it could be for lawmakers to agree anytime soon on a major breakthrough to demonstrably reduce the nation’s debt load.There is no clear economic evidence that current debt levels are dragging on economic growth. Some economists contend that rising debt levels will hurt growth by making it harder for businesses to borrow money; others say spiraling future costs of government borrowing could unleash rapid inflation.But Washington is back to pretending to care about debt, which is poised to top $50 trillion by the end of the decade even after accounting for newly passed spending cuts.With that pretense comes the reality that the fundamental drivers of American politics all point toward the United States borrowing more, not less.The bipartisan agreement to suspend the debt ceiling for two years, which passed the Senate on Thursday, effectively sets overall discretionary spending levels over that period. The agreement cuts federal spending by $1.5 trillion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, by essentially freezing some funding that had been projected to increase next year and then limiting spending to 1 percent growth in 2025.But even with those savings, the agreement provides clear evidence that the nation’s overall debt load will not be shrinking anytime soon.Republicans cited that mounting debt burden as a reason to refuse to raise the limit, risking default and financial crisis, unless Mr. Biden agreed to measures to reduce future deficits. But negotiators from the White House and House Republican leadership could only agree to find major savings from nondefense discretionary spending.That’s the part of the budget that funds Pell grants, federal law enforcement and a wide range of domestic programs. As a share of the economy, it is well within historical levels, and it is projected to fall in the coming years. Currently, base discretionary spending accounts for less than one-eighth of the $6.3 trillion the government spends annually.The deal included no major cuts to military spending, which is larger than base nondefense discretionary spending. Early in the talks, both parties ruled out changes to the two largest drivers of federal spending growth over the next decade: Social Security and Medicare. The cost of those programs is expected to soar within 10 years as retiring baby boomers qualify for benefits.While Republicans at first balked when Mr. Biden accused them of wanting to cut those politically popular programs, they quickly switched to blaming the president for taking them off the table.Asked on Fox News on Wednesday why Republicans had not targeted the entire budget for cuts, Speaker Kevin McCarthy replied, “Because the president walled off all the others.”“The majority driver of the budget is mandatory spending,” he said. “It’s Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt.”Negotiators for Mr. McCarthy effectively walled off the other half of the debt equation: revenue. They rebuffed Mr. Biden’s pitch to raise trillions of dollars from new taxes on corporations and high earners, and both sides wound up agreeing to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service that was expected to bring in more money by cracking down on tax cheats.Instead, Republicans attempted to frame mounting national debt as solely a spending problem, not a tax-revenue problem, even though tax cuts by both parties have added trillions to the debt since the turn of the century.Republican leaders now appear poised to introduce a new round of tax-cut proposals, which would likely be financed with borrowed money, a move Democrats decried during the floor debate over the debt-ceiling deal.“Before the ink is dry on this bill, you will be pushing for $3.5 trillion in business tax cuts,” Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, said shortly before the final vote on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, as it is called, on Wednesday.Those comments reflected a lesson Democrats took from 2011, when Washington leaders last made a big show of pretending to care about debt in a bipartisan deal to raise the borrowing limit. That agreement, between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner, limited discretionary spending growth for a decade, helping to drive down budget deficits for years.Many Democrats now believe those lower deficits gave Republicans the fiscal and political space they needed to pass a tax-cut package in 2017 under President Donald J. Trump that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would add nearly $2 trillion to the national debt. They have come to believe that Republicans would happily do the same again with any future budget deals — putting aside deficit concerns and effectively turning budget savings into new tax breaks.At the same time, both parties have grown more wary of cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Obama was willing to reduce future growth of retirement benefits by changing how they were tied to inflation; Mr. Biden is not. Mr. Trump won the White House after promising to protect both programs, in a break from past Republicans, and is currently slamming his rivals over possible cuts to the programs as he seeks the presidency again.All the while, the total amount of federal debt has more than doubled, to $31.4 trillion from just below $15 trillion in 2011. That growth has had no discernible effect on the performance of the economy. But it is projected to continue growing in the next decade, as retiring baby boomers draw more government benefits. The budget office estimated last month that debt held by the public would be nearly 20 percent larger in 2033, as a share of the economy, than it is today.Even under a generous score of the new agreement, which assumes Congress will effectively lock in two years of spending cuts over the full course of a decade, that growth will only fall by a few percentage points.Groups promoting debt reduction in Washington have celebrated the deal as a first step toward a larger compromise to reduce America’s reliance on borrowed money. But neither Mr. McCarthy nor Mr. Biden has shown any interest in what those groups want: a mix of significant cuts to retirement programs and increases in tax revenues.Mr. McCarthy suggested this week that he would soon form a bipartisan commission to scour the full federal budget “so we can find the waste and we can make the real decisions to really take care of this debt.”The 2011 debt deal produced a similar sort of commission, which issued recommendations on politically painful steps to reduce debt. Lawmakers discarded them. There’s no evidence they’d do anything else today. More

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    How to Enforce a Debt Deal: Through ‘Meat-Ax’ Cuts Nobody Wants

    The debt-limit legislation includes a provision meant to force both sides to pass additional bills following through on their deal: the threat of automatic cuts if they fail to do so.The bipartisan legislation Congress passed this week to suspend the debt ceiling and impose spending caps contains an arcane but important provision aimed at forcing both sides to follow through on the deal struck by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.The 99-page measure suspends the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit until January 2025. It cuts federal spending by $1.5 trillion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, by effectively freezing some funding that had been projected to increase next year and then limiting spending to 1 percent growth in 2025.But it also contains a number of side deals that never appear in its text but that were crucial to forging the bipartisan compromise, and that allowed both sides to claim they had gotten what they wanted out of it. To try to ensure that Congress abides by the agreement, negotiators used a time-tested technique that lawmakers have turned to for decades to enforce efforts to reduce the deficit: the threat of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts if they do not finish their work.Here’s how it works.A 1 percent cut unless spending bills are passed.Congress is supposed to pass 12 individual spending bills each year to keep the government funded. But for decades, lawmakers, unable to agree on those measures, have lumped them together into one enormous piece of legislation referred to as an “omnibus” spending bill and pushed them through against the threat of a shutdown.The debt-limit agreement imposes an automatic 1 percent cut on all spending — including on military and veterans programs, which were exempted from the caps in the compromise bill — unless all dozen bills are passed and signed into law by the end of the calendar year. Mandatory spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security would be exempt.A wrinkle is that, because the fiscal year that drives Congress’s spending cycle ends before the calendar year does — on Sept. 30 — Congress would still need to pass a short-term bill to fund the government from October through December to avoid a shutdown.Republicans and Democrats both dread the cuts.The measure is a version of a plan offered by Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, a key vote to advancing the bill through the Rules Committee, who said he believed it would help avoid the Democratic-controlled Senate using the specter of a shutdown to force the House to swallow a bloated spending bill at the end of the year.“You get threatened and ransomed with a shutdown,” Mr. Massie said in an interview in late April describing the plan. “They’ll tell you, ‘If you don’t pass the Senate bill, there’s going to be a shutdown.’ I think we need to take that leverage away from anybody who would risk a shutdown to get more spending. Just take that off the table.”Some Republicans, including defense hawks, are livid about the measure, arguing that it would subject the Pentagon to irresponsible cuts. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, called it a “harmful” provision that would leave a “threat hanging over” the Defense Department.“It would trigger an automatic, meat-ax, indiscriminate, across-the-board cut in our already inadequate defense budget and in the domestic, discretionary nondefense funding,” Ms. Collins said.Democrats, too, have a major incentive to avoid the cuts, since they have resisted reducing funding for federal programs all along.Without spending bills, major parts of the debt deal will die.Both parties stand to lose victories gained through handshake agreements during negotiations if Congress cannot pass its appropriations bills. Neither the White House nor House Republicans have published a full accounting of the agreements that do not appear in legislative text, but some have become clear.The deals allow Republicans to claim they are making deep cuts to certain spending categories while letting Democrats mitigate the pain of those cuts in the funding bills.One unwritten but agreed-upon compromise allows appropriators to repurpose $10 billion a year in 2024 and 2025 from the I.R.S. — a key priority of Republicans, who had opposed the additional enforcement funding championed by Mr. Biden and Democrats.Another side agreement, sought by Democrats, that would evaporate if the spending bills were not written designated $23 billion a year in domestic spending outside military funding as “emergency” spending, basically exempting that money from the caps in the deal.Jim Tankersley More