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Biden criticizes 'ultra-MAGA' Republicans as inflation rises

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Gas prices are again at an all-time high today. And later this week, we could get more bad news about inflation. Today at the White House, President Biden had a message for the American people. He says he feels their pain when it comes to rising prices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I want every American to know that I'm taking inflation very seriously, and it's my top domestic priority.

CHANG: But the president wasn't just focused on tackling inflation, he was also pushing his latest strategy to take on Republicans.

For more on that, NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now from the White House. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So before we get to strategy against Republicans, let's start with inflation. At this point, how is Biden explaining why inflation keeps persisting?

KEITH: Well, as we heard, he started by saying that he knows people are hurting, that wages are rising, but they aren't keeping up. And he also said that these are unusual times, that inflation is being driven by a once-in-a-century pandemic and the supply chain issues it caused and Russia's war with Ukraine. He has previously described Putin's price hike as affecting oil prices. Well, now he's talking about Putin's price hike on food supplies and prices as well.

Biden talked about how the Fed is working on containing prices by raising interest rates. And he talked about how Democrats have a plan aimed at lowering costs on things that affect people, like prescription drug prices. And then he quickly made a turn to draw a contrast with Republicans, arguing that while they want to criticize the president for inflation, they don't themselves have a good plan to bring it down.

Celinda Lake is a Democratic pollster working with candidates who will be on the ballot in November. I talked to her about this. She says contrast is really important because right now the majority of voters believe Republicans are better on the economy than Democrats.

CELINDA LAKE: There are two kinds of elections. There are elections that are about referendums on the incumbent, and there are elections that are about a choice. We need to make this election about a choice.

KEITH: Biden and Democrats are not going to be able to fix inflation by November. And in fact, people are forming their views on the economy right now as they fill up their cars with gas. And there really isn't that much the president can do in the short term about inflation, so Biden is trying to change the dynamic here.

CHANG: Right. OK. So how is the president trying to pull that off?

KEITH: Well, instead of people voting on how they feel about the economy, he wants them to think about how they feel about Republicans. But let's just say that every president wants their midterms to be a choice election and not a referendum, and that's a really hard thing to pull off.

He has started using this new term, ultra-MAGA Republicans, and it's sort of a catchall to highlight the most extreme elements, as he would say, of the Republican Party - everything from election denial to proposals to outlaw abortion or changes to Medicare and Social Security. And Biden said that he knows Democratic voters are frustrated that his party hasn't been able to accomplish everything they promised - or even a lot of their major goals - but he argued that the alternative is worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Congressional Republicans - not all of them - but the MAGA Republicans are counting on you to be as frustrated by the pace of progress, which they have everything - they've done everything they can to slow down - that you're going to - will hand power over to them and enact - so they can enact their extreme agenda.

CHANG: OK. So instead of talking about what Democrats have not been able to get done, Biden's trying to pivot here and focus on MAGA Republicans potentially taking over Congress.

KEITH: Ultra-MAGA - and MAGA is short for Make America Great Again. That is the slogan that propelled former President Trump into office in 2016. Now, Biden isn't saying the name Trump, but Trump is already out with an ultra-MAGA T-shirt that they're selling with a cartoon version of him flying around as a Superman-type character.

Celinda Lake, the pollster I talked to earlier, told me that the idea behind this slogan is to say not all republicans are bad, just the extreme ones. And in a sense, that is an effort to appeal to independent voters who Biden is struggling with right now. White House officials say that we will be hearing a lot more of this, but it isn't entirely clear whether this slogan is going to stick or whether it will work to persuade voters.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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