PHILADELPHIA — President Joe Biden on Friday continued to blame both the pandemic and Russian President Vladimir Putin for high gas prices and sought to blunt arguments about federal spending contributing to inflation.
“[People] didn't spend money on leisure activities, so they wanted to spend it on other things, on hard goods, home improvements, televisions, additions to their homes, the very products that slowed down by disruption in the supply chain because there weren't people cutting two-by-fours because of COVID,” Biden said during a visit to the House Democratic issues conference.
Conceding he was “preaching to the choir,” the president also said, “The second big reason for inflation is Vladimir Putin. From the moment he put his over 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, the price of gasoline in January went up 75 cents.”
Ahead of Biden's arrival on Friday, members were advocating for him to take further executive action on issues from voting rights and policing policy to immigration.
But executive actions were not the president’s focus either in his public remarks or during a question-and-answer session with the House Democrats that followed, according to Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, whose caucus is working to craft a set of executive actions they would like to see from Biden.
Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a key ally of the president, recalled a recent meeting with Biden and the Congressional Black Caucus in which members referenced the significance of executive authority, especially when Congress does not act.
"Executive orders do have power. The armed services were integrated by Harry Truman by executive order," the South Carolina Democrat said Thursday. He said they reminded Biden that members would be "very pleased" if administration lawyers conclude more executive action is possible with respect to policing and voting, both issues which have stalled legislatively thanks largely to the 50-50 division of the Senate.
On Friday, Clyburn and Speaker Nancy Pelosi each referenced the Emancipation Proclamation being an executive order signed by President Abraham Lincoln that was a precursor to amending the Constitution to ban slavery.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has similarly advocated for furthering executive action in areas such as immigration. As president, Barack Obama used an executive order to defer enforcement action against undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
"Legislating is always our preferred strategy. From the speaker to the majority leader to everyone behind me, we know that there is no substitute to developing laws that deliver benefits to our communities," Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar of California said Friday. "But we also need partners on the other side of the aisle who are willing to do that, and time and time again Republicans have not supported taking action, whether it's delivering voting rights, or ensuring that people who call, there is no other country that is their home except the United States, to ensure that they're protected."
Aguilar was expanding on a proposal outlined Thursday by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"The CHC has developed a strategy on executive orders that we're going to start negotiating with the administration very soon," he said, including steps "to reduce the backlog and to provide help for the immigrant families, women and children, and help them on their path of ... creating a professional humane immigration system."
Other priorities include ending the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Title 42 authority to restrict immigration because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changing the Migrant Protection Protocols often referred to as "Remain in Mexico."
Jayapal says her caucus hopes to unveil a broad slate of proposed executive actions next week. While she declined to detail specifics to reporters gathered at the issues conference, Jayapal has been among the Senate and House Democrats calling for Biden to use executive authority to cancel student loan debt. Potential executive action on that topic has been in what appears to be a perpetual state of legal review.
"I don't want anyone to think that we believe that executive action is better than legislation. We would always prefer to have legislation," Jayapal, D- Wash., said Thursday. "But certainly there are a lot of areas where A) if we don't get legislation, the administration can take action, and B) the administration can take action to help move us more quickly towards the goals that we're working on."
After the president spoke, Jayapal said the trip was worthwhile in part because it had been so long since members have been able to "let loose a little" and meet in a less formal setting.
"It's to the president's point, you know, it's hard to do this work. And it works best when you have a relationship and when you're in communication, and there were also some very good sessions on marketing and some good experts that came in to talk to us about messaging and, and I just think it was an important opportunity for us to be together as a caucus, she said.
Rep. Colin Allred, whose Texas district was a battleground last cycle but changed in redistricting so much his reelection race is now rated Solid Democratic, said the message coming out of the conference was that “we have a really strong economic record that we need to talk about.”
He downplayed “noise that’s out there around inflation and gas prices,” arguing that “it’s not being caused by what we’ve done, but it’s being driven by forces that we’re trying to combat.”
During the conference, members highlighted that it was a year ago that they passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package that included relief checks of up to $1,400 sent to taxpayers and monthly tax credit payments to parents. Despite those efforts, Biden saw his approval rating drop during the year.
“It’s been a frustrating year,” said Allred. “I have two young kids, and when their day care says [they have] to send kids home with COVID, it affects the whole family. I understand that and empathize with the lasting impacts of the pandemic. But we’re coming out of that now. And a lot of what we’re seeing now, in terms of positive economic numbers, is a direct result of the American Rescue Plan.”
Asked why the polls don’t show the public seeing it that way, he said, “Sometimes when we pass legislation that’s so massive, it’s almost harder to message what’s in it until the full impacts are felt. But it’s going to be incumbent upon us to do that.”