Campaigning in New Mexico, Biden aims to assuage voters’ economic anxieties

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham greets President Biden upon his arrival Wednesday at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

President Biden spent much of Thursday defending his party in New Mexico, where he touted his administration’s policies, implored voters to support Democrats and warned that next week’s election will shape the nation for the next 20 years.

“This is not a referendum,” Biden said. “It’s a choice between two very different versions of America.”

The midterm elections that will determine control of Congress are just days away, and Biden’s party faces strong headwinds. Voters remain concerned about high inflation rates and the possibility of a recession. The parties of incumbent presidents typically lose seats in midterm elections, and polls indicate Republicans are likely to retake the House of Representatives. Tight Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania make the struggle for power in the upper house a headache.

In remarks at a Democratic rally and an Albuquerque community college, Biden sought to remind voters of his administration’s accomplishments so far, including nominating the first black woman to the state Supreme Court. US, clemency granted to those convicted of possession of federal marijuana and forgiveness of some federal student loans. Biden has said he would ban assault weapons and pass legislation to protect access to abortion nationwide if voters help expand the majority of Democrats in Congress.

In remarks at a rally, Biden sought to allay concerns about a potential economic downturn, touting low jobless numbers. But voters’ outlook on the economy has darkened. In a late October poll by the Wall Street Journal, 71% of respondents said the US economy was heading in the wrong direction, while 54% believed Biden’s policies were having a negative effect on the economy.

The Federal Reserve still needs to make substantial progress in tackling inflation, central bank chairman Jerome Powell said this week, leaving investors worried that a recession is looming. Economic anxiety has given Republicans an edge in many congressional races. GOP candidates have deemed Biden ill-equipped to steer the country out of a recession and pushed back against the president’s bright eye on the economy.

‘Biden wants to brag about the economy but families know best’ tweeted Ronna McDaniel, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. “57% of Americans say their financial situation is getting worse, that’s nothing to brag about.

At the rally in Albuquerque, Biden said falling gas prices, which soared after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, had given Americans financial relief. The national gasoline price average jumped to $5.016 per gallon of regular unleaded in June, according to the American Automobile Assn. This week, the average was down to $3.778 per gallon of regular. Biden lambasted oil executives for high costs, insisting they were overcharging Americans in a bid to boost their profit margins.

In Albuquerque, he criticized oil companies for high costs at the pump, saying they overpriced gas in an effort to increase profit margins and give profits to shareholders. “These outrageous profits are the bargains of war,” Biden said. “Either invest in America or pay higher taxes.”

Biden touted the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year and warned voters against supporting Republican congressional candidates, saying the GOP is campaigning unabashedly to undermine longstanding safety net programs, including social security.

Biden was careful to highlight his plan for limited student loan debt cancellation. In August, it announced it would waive up to $10,000 for borrowers and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. During remarks at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, Biden said about 26 million borrowers have already applied to the Department of Education for debt relief.

The president said if Republicans were successful in the courts, millions of people would still be in debt and prevented from seeking economic freedom.

“The student loan program is designed to give a little more breathing space,” Biden said.

Republicans criticized Biden’s debt cancellation plan on the campaign trail, telling voters that Biden’s move would increase the national debt and exacerbate inflation. At community college, Biden said Republican outrage over the plan was “wrong” and “hypocritical,” noting that many GOP lawmakers had millions in pandemic-era loans canceled by the federal government.

“Who the hell do they think they are?” Biden asked at the rally.

Biden also criticized Republicans for trying to block his loan forgiveness plan in court.

Last month, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the Department of Education from implementing the plan at the request of six Republican state officials who argued the president needed explicit permission of Congress to cancel student loans on a large scale. Biden had previously expressed doubts about his power as president to cancel student loans. After the plan was announced, the administration said the president had the authority to do so.

The Biden administration said the loan forgiveness plan would primarily benefit working-class and middle-class families, as borrowers with annual incomes below $125,000 are eligible. Biden also noted that his plan would also help reduce monthly payments for undergraduate loans.

“I will never apologize for helping working-class and middle-class families as they recover from the economic crisis created by a pandemic,” Biden told a crowd of fewer than 50 people at the Albuquerque Community College.

While advocates praised Biden for providing relief, others criticized him for not going far enough. Progressives have called for at least $50,000 in loans to be forgiven so that black borrowers, who are disproportionately saddled with student loan debt, can see substantial progress in their balances.

The Biden administration noted that more than 70% of black undergraduate borrowers who are Pell Fellowship recipients are eligible for a discount of up to $20,000. And 20 million borrowers, including nearly half of Latino borrowers, would see their debt forgiven if the plan is upheld by a court.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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