High Borrowing Costs Have Some Democrats Urging Biden to Pressure the Fed

Sky-high mortgage rates and other elevated borrowing costs are pinching American consumers ahead of the 2024 election, threatening President Biden’s chances at a second term.

Yet so far, Mr. Biden has not called on the Federal Reserve, which has raised interest rates to their highest levels in more than two decades, to slash those costs.

The White House has repeatedly cited the Fed’s independence as the reason that Mr. Biden will not push the Fed to cut interest rates. But some Democrats are now urging the president to jettison that approach. That is because the central bank, which was expected to cut rates early in 2024, is now unlikely to start reducing them anytime soon.

The reason is that the Fed’s efforts to tame inflation have recently stalled and price gains are proving stickier than expected. That means interest rates could remain at the current level of 5.3 percent for a while: Investors now expect the first rate cuts to come later in the year, perhaps in September.

As higher rates weigh on voter sentiment, some Democratic strategists say it is time for Mr. Biden to emulate former President Donald J. Trump, who routinely browbeat the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, to lower rates.

Mr. Biden’s team should “seriously consider making a public spectacle out of it, the way Trump did,” said Evan Roth Smith, the lead pollster at the Democratic group Blueprint. His latest survey shows that nearly two-thirds of voters are worried that rates will stay high if Mr. Biden wins re-election, suggesting that the president risks paying a political price for borrowing costs that are largely out of his control.

“Voters at least knew Trump didn’t like when interest rates went up,” Mr. Roth Smith added. “He said something, he berated a guy in public — the guy who raised them — and he drew political distance between himself and that decision by laying blame at the foot of the Fed and Jerome Powell.”

Mr. Biden has come close to commenting on Fed policy at times, including after the central bank held rates steady at its last meeting. The president said afterward that he still expected rates to come down. But he has avoided putting outright pressure on the Fed.

White House officials say that Mr. Biden will not go any further than those oblique statements.

“President Biden is well aware of the history of economies that have been severely damaged when central bank independence is compromised,” said Jared Bernstein, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Biden’s reticence persists even as high rates appear to be damaging his re-election prospects. A Blueprint survey released last week found that two-thirds of respondents nationally were worried Mr. Biden would “allow interest rates to stay high” in a second term. Nearly half thought that rates would go up if Mr. Biden was re-elected.

Voters do not express the same interest-rate fears about Mr. Trump. Fewer than half of the poll’s respondents said they expected that Mr. Trump would allow rates to stay high. As president, Mr. Trump castigated the Fed for not cutting rates in 2019, when the economy was growing but not as fast as he believed it should be after he signed a giant package of tax cuts into law. Mr. Trump called Fed officials “boneheads” and asked who the bigger enemy was: Mr. Powell or the leader of China, Xi Jinping.

Presidents have limited influence over the Fed. They appoint its key officials, including the chair, but they cannot directly control how the central bank sets interest rates. Fed policymakers regularly say that rate decisions are dictated by economic conditions, not politics.

Congress has given the central bank independence in setting monetary policy for a reason: It has a politically fraught job. The Fed is supposed to control inflation, but doing that can mean hurting the economy in the near term — often at a cost to the incumbent president.

While presidents can try to bully the Fed publicly, its officials typically avoid any appearance of bowing to partisan whims. Central bankers want the public to believe that they are making policy with the economy’s best interests in mind. They also know Congress could pass legislation to curb the Fed’s powers if lawmakers came to believe that the central bank was abusing its position.

For now, Fed officials are signaling that fighting inflation might mean a longer period of high rates. Last month, Fed officials indicated that they expected to cut rates three times this year. But inflation has been stubborn, and remains hotter than the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent.

Mr. Powell and other Fed officials suggested last week that the latest inflation numbers would keep rates elevated for longer than expected.

“The recent data have clearly not given us greater confidence and instead indicate that it’s likely to take longer than expected to achieve that confidence,” Mr. Powell said.

Investors have recalibrated their anticipation for rate cuts accordingly. Mortgage rates, which tend to respond to expectations of Fed rates, have risen back above 7 percent after dipping lower earlier this year.

High rates can bring political consequences. Fed policy has been blamed for slowing the economy severely enough to harm or even doom re-election attempts by incumbents, including Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Presidents also have a history of pushing back on high borrowing costs: Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have cornered his Fed chair against a wall at his Texas ranch.

But the White House, starting with the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, has for decades avoided talking about Fed policy.

Mr. Trump upended that, criticizing the central bank and calling for lower interest rates. From the campaign trail, though, Mr. Trump has recently suggested that the Fed would be political if it cut interest rates, because doing so would help Democrats ahead of the election.

“Trump really did break the norm — it certainly opened the door for subsequent presidents to comment on the Fed,” said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University who co-wrote a book on the politics of the Fed.

The reality for Mr. Biden is that even if he were to ramp up his interest rate rhetoric, economists do not believe it would sway Fed policy.

“They’re going to do everything they possibly can to stay out of the political situation,” said Laura Rosner-Warburton, a senior economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives. “Everything they do has to have a rationale in the data.”

Many progressives, including those who have been pushing the Fed to cut rates, are skeptical of the idea that Mr. Biden could succeed in pressuring Mr. Powell and his colleagues to speed up their rate cuts.

Lindsay Owens, executive director of the liberal Groundwork Collaborative in Washington, has been calling on the Fed to cut rates for months.

But in an interview, she said she did not think Fed officials would bow to pressure from Mr. Biden or anyone else — and that Groundwork’s own private polling was not conclusive on whether voters would reward Mr. Biden for trying.

“I have seen nothing in the last few years that suggests that any advocacy, from organizations like mine or from the president, will change Powell’s calculus,” Ms. Owens said.

You may also like...