Turkey trap: Democrats, Biden careen toward rocky — and pricey — Thanksgiving

As Americans pay more for turkeys, gasoline and flights home, White House touts letter from Nobel economists

President Joe Biden waits to speak about the bipartisan infrastructure bill as he and Democrats approach what analysts say will be an expensive holiday season for consumers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden waits to speak about the bipartisan infrastructure bill as he and Democrats approach what analysts say will be an expensive holiday season for consumers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted November 18, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Democrats on Capitol Hill and President Joe Biden — fighting one another, a stubborn coronavirus and staggering inflation — are careening toward a tumultuous Thanksgiving.

Can they avoid what might be called the turkey trap?

As they continue an intraparty battle over the contents of a $1.7 trillion domestic spending measure, polls show voters are frustrated by a party they view as out of touch. Biden’s approval rating is hovering at its lowest point (42 percent), and political forecasters from both sides of the partisan divide see a 2022 midterms map awash in red.

Consumer prices are the highest in three decades, climbing by 6.2 percent between October 2020 and October 2021. Administration officials claim inflation is being fueled by supply chain shortages caused by an easing pandemic. Gasoline and fuel oil prices are up around 50 percent over the past 12 months, beef is up 20.1 percent, chicken costs have risen by 8.8 percent and baby food costs 7.9 percent more, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And for Washington Democrats, things soon could get even worse — especially considering an ABC News-Washington Post poll released Sunday that showed 62 percent of those surveyed believe Democrats are “out of touch” with citizens' biggest worries. (In a small amount of solace for Democrats, 58 percent said the same of the GOP.)

Americans consume 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving and 22 million each Christmas, according to the National Turkey Federation. Poultry prices are up 19.1 percent since October 2019, according to Labor Department data.

Biden last week told reporters that reversing the upward trend on goods is his “top priority.” But comments he made in July revealed again a president who ignored warnings from experts, later creating headaches for himself, his party and the country.

“There will be near-term inflation” because the economy was emerging from the pandemic, Biden said at that time during a town hall in Ohio. “It’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be long-term inflation that’s going to get out of hand.”

Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, warned last week that prices are “really sailing … for things like gas, things like food.” He does see some cause for optimism in recent economic data: The overall cost of living “is rising at a slower rate.”

Republican lawmakers see the issue as a winner, putting the blame squarely on the president’s shoulders.

“The cost of getting by in the United States is increasing at a faster rate today than it has in 30 years. And with the holidays around the corner, the Biden administration has only exacerbated the anxiety families face as we approach the most expensive Thanksgiving on record that will involve soaring prices and a scarcity of goods,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement.

Economic pain

Some Democrats also are raising alarms.

“The policymakers in Washington unfortunately have almost every month been behind the curve,” Larry Summers, National Economic Council chairman under former President Barack Obama, told CNN. “They said it was transitory. It doesn’t look so transitory. They said it was due to a few specific factors. Doesn’t look to be a few specific factors.”

Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia tweeted last week that “the threat posed by record inflation to the American people is not ‘transitory’ and is instead getting worse. From the grocery store to the gas pump, Americans know the inflation tax is real and DC can no longer ignore the economic pain Americans feel.”

Voters, with lighter wallets today, are not likely to care much that prices spiked more violently in the 1970s and 1980s. Are they willing to pay more until the bipartisan infrastructure measure Biden signed into law Monday, as he predicts, might help lower prices?

“According to the economic experts, this bill is going to ease inflationary pressures, lowering the cost to working families,” the president said Nov. 10 in Baltimore. “Seventeen, excuse me, yeah, 17 Nobel laureates in economics wrote a letter to me about 10 days ago saying this is going to affect — bring inflation down, not up.”

Biden is making a risky bet. Experts say it will take the federal government months, maybe years, to identify worthy infrastructure projects, award contracts and dole out funds. The president did signal Wednesday he is feeling pressure to hit back at rising prices.

Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission to examine possible “illegal conduct” by large oil and gas companies, claiming his administration sees “mounting evidence of anti-consumer behavior.” While the move alone will not pare fuel prices soon, it could help the White House counter criticism that Biden is not addressing inflation.

But this turkey trap is not just about grocery and heating bills. Democrats and Biden also soon could face backlash over what could be a hellish Thanksgiving travel experience.

High gas prices. Airports full of stranded and angry travelers amid warnings that thousands of Transportation Security Administration employees could call out sick or quit in protest over Biden’s federal vaccine mandate.

“I am very concerned that this holiday season will be anything but a cheerful time to travel,” Henry Harteveldt, president of the Atmosphere Research Group, told CQ Roll Call. “There are numerous risks out there that could make it a very frustrating time for travelers.”

The American Automobile Association estimates 53.4 million people in the U.S. will be traveling during Thanksgiving week, including 4.2 million by air. Harteveldt is worried about a TSA without enough legally trained security screeners to efficiently scan and clear passengers.

“TSA doesn’t have a base of reserve workers it can call up in an emergency,” he said. “TSA can take management employees ... and send them to the front of line to do things like direct passengers — but unless they have gone through security training, they cannot operate the security equipment. ... I’m very concerned that if TSA isn’t successful making the progress needed in vaccinating its people, travelers will face very long lines.”

‘Granular number

The White House said the 46th president on Friday will follow every chief executive since Ronald Reagan by pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.

With more infighting ahead and domestic problems piling up, can Democrats find a way to give themselves clemency from more political pain? If officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have a secret inflation-busting weapon in mind, they are not ready to deploy it.

At a Thursday briefing, Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo made a guest appearance to talk mostly about expanding broadband access. And when Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about price spikes, she echoed her boss by citing “the 17 Nobel laureate economists [that] have said that this bill, the Build Back Better Act and bipartisan infrastructure, will ease inflation.” The former is a $1.7 trillion social spending measure that has been mired in Democratic disagreement for months.

“When we hear members are afraid of going big, we say, ‘Well, this is going to actually help us in the long run,’ especially as we see, with prices going up, we see the inflation continuing to be out there,” she said, appearing to describe the White House’s message to moderate Democrats who want to shrink the price tag.

“I don’t have, like I said, a granular number for you,” Jean-Pierre told reporters, regarding the amount of inflation relief the bills would bring. “But we know this from economists who have said that these two bills will help do that.” Asked about rising prices during a Monday morning television interview, Jean-Pierre again cited the award-winning economists.

The problem for congressional Democrats and Biden is that moderate Republican and independent voters they won in 2020 deal in granular numbers each day. They are focused on the suddenly larger ones on their grocery, gasoline and home heating bills. Not Nobel-winning economists.