Washington Watch: Biden’s rare inflation meeting with Powell may serve to ‘deflect blame back to the Fed’

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President Joe Biden huddled on Tuesday with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on the U.S.’s fight against high inflation, after writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the central bank “has a primary responsibility to control inflation” and promising not to meddle in its operations.

Biden reiterated his pledge on central-bank independence as his meeting with Powell kicked off, telling reporters that his job as president is to give Fed officials “the space they need to do their job.

Analysts say Biden’s moves with the Fed make sense.

The meeting is “part and parcel of efforts to say, ‘We’re here, we hear you, and we’re going to do our part … and get the Fed to do whatever it takes,’” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of political science at George Washington University, in an interview.

“Biden can deflect blame back to the Fed — this is your job, and you should do whatever it takes,” she added.

Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial, said allowing the Fed to “conduct independent monetary policy” is “not only good for the economy, it is good for the president politically.”

“President Trump did not win any favor by brawling with the Fed,” Low wrote in a note, referring to Biden’s predecessor, who frequently tweeted criticism at Powell after picking him over Janet Yellen, now Biden’s secretary of the Treasury, to lead the central bank.

Powell and other Fed officials benefit from attention around the meeting with Biden, according to Binder.

“To make tough choices, the Fed needs political support. There is no stronger signal of political support than for the president to say, ‘I want you to do whatever it takes,’ ” Binder told MarketWatch.

Economists have cautioned that every president — Democrat or Republican — lacks powerful tools for addressing high prices

When asked by MarketWatch about Biden’s limited ability to tackle inflation, a top White House economist on May 20 said the question goes to the fact that it’s the Fed’s dual mandate to ensure price stability and full employment.

“So first and foremost, the president and his entire administration respect the independence of the Fed, and also understand that this is largely their mandate — to address inflation,” said Cecilia Rouse, who heads Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers.

“We support the policy changes that they’re making in order to address inflation. That said, the president is doing what he can, as well,” Rouse said, pointing to steps such as the release of oil reserves and allowing the summertime sale of gasoline with 15% ethanol. So-called E15 gasoline could provide savings of 10 cents per gallon on average at the gas stations where it’s available.

See: As Biden fights inflation, economists warn his weapons for this battle look ‘extremely limited’

This month Biden has put his stamp on the central bank, having appointed four governors to the seven-member Fed board.

Before Biden’s picks were approved by the Senate, the Fed’s interest-rate-setting committee was heavily tilted toward hawks. But the balance has now shifted, said Ian Shephersdon, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

“Much depends on the approach of the new governors, Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson, neither of whom were appointed — we assume — to be hawks,” Shepherson said.

Another Biden nominee to the Fed board, Michael Barr, is awaiting Senate action.

Barr sailed through his confirmation hearing and isn’t expected to face difficulty on the Senate floor.

Analysts have stressed that Biden’s Democratic Party looks on track for defeats in November’s midterm elections if high prices persist. Americans’ frustrations with inflation are helping to keep Biden’s approval ratings low — and providing a talking point to Republicans ahead of the elections.

Republicans are widely expected to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, with betting market PredictIt giving an 87% chance for that outcome. The GOP is getting good odds for taking back the 50-50 Senate, too, as PredictIt puts that likelihood at 77%.

Biden and his administration are making a concerted effort in the month ahead to communicate their accomplishments to date on the economy, on the path forward and on the contrast with a Congressional Republican plan laid out by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a White House official said on Tuesday.

Scott is chair of the National Republican Senate Committee, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has rebuked him for his proposal, with the Kentucky Republican saying in March: “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”

Powell was confirmed to a second four-year Fed term by the evenly divided Senate in mid-May by an 80-19 vote.

“Because Powell was able to secure all those Republican votes, it blunts the charge that this is the Biden Fed,” Binder said. “Having Republican support plus Biden in the White House, it is like an endorsement of the Fed to go do it.”

U.S. stocks
DJIA,
-0.67%

COMP,
-0.41%

traded mixed Tuesday afternoon, as investors kept an eye on the Biden-Powell meeting. The main equity gauges have tumbled this year, with the S&P 500 
SPX,
-0.63%

down about 13%, as investors fret about inflation, the Fed’s interest-rate hikes and the potential for a recession, though they booked sizable gains last week, helped in part by Fed minutes out Wednesday that suggested the central bank is open to rethinking its plans to raise rates to tame inflation.

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