CULPEPER, Virginia -- Unable to tame inflation that has worsened sharply under his watch, President Joe Biden stressed Thursday that his administration’s policies would cut prescription drug prices and make life more affordable for families.
His pitch, which he delivered at a community college in Culpeper, Virginia, came on the heels of a dire inflation report released earlier in the day. Consumer prices jumped 7.5% over the year ending in January, as the sources of inflation have broadened on a monthly basis with increases in the costs of rent, electricity, clothes and household furnishings. The pandemic disrupted supply chains and government aid boosted consumer demand, causing prices for gasoline, food and other goods such as autos to rise earlier this year.
Inflation poses a triple threat for Biden going into this year's midterm elections. Prices at a 40-year peak have dimmed his public support and endangered his policy agenda, while efforts by the Federal Reserve to curb inflation could meaningfully slow the strong economic growth that had been a highlight of his first year.
“Inflation is up. It’s up.” Biden said. “But the fact is that if we’re able to do the things I’m talking about, it will bring down the cost for average families.”
The president said he will “work like the devil” to bring down gas prices. He said “everyone has less money in their pockets today because of high drug costs" as he pledged that his policies would give family budgets some breathing room. He said pharmaceutical companies should be able to make a profit, though they cannot price drugs at levels that hurt people's financial wellbeing.
“The idea that you can charge whatever you want is just not going to happen,” said the president, who was flanked on stage by signs that said “lowering costs for families" in an indication of just how much inflation has taken over the administration's messaging.
Joshua Davis, a 12-year-old with diabetes, introduced Biden to the crowd. Davis' father also has diabetes, and the family's insulin budget, even though it has insurance, runs between $6,000 and $7,000 per year. Sometimes, the family uses expired insulin to save money.
“I’m thankful that insulin was invented because it is my life support — I don’t have a choice whether or not to use it,” the seventh grader said.
Biden’s trip to Virginia also served as an opportunity for him to start promoting his party’s candidates in November’s midterm elections. He appeared alongside Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who is in danger of losing her seat representing a central Virginia district.
Spanberger said she welcomes any effort to lower prescription drug prices and told reporters that the effort was about a broader attempt to reduce inflation.
“That’s part and parcel of what we’re here talking about, right?" she said. "So when you’re worried about the gas pump or you’re worried about the cost of chicken in the grocery store, and your child is diabetic — all those things become impactful.”
Spanberger is one of several Democrats who have raised alarms about slipping support from voters. She suggested in a November interview with The New York Times that Biden had overreached with his plans for new government programs that recalled the Depression-era agenda of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Nobody elected him to be FDR; they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” she said.
After the article was published, Spanberger said, she got a call from Biden, who said, “This is President Roosevelt calling.” Biden was “belly-laughing,” she said.
Prescription drugs remain a politically safe focal point for Biden’s visit, and Spanberger said the president was right to push forward on it.
“One of the most unsettling things for people is the inability to afford their prescription drugs," she said.
The tougher question is how to blunt Republican criticism on inflation and convince skittish lawmakers such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to back Biden's pared-down economic agenda. Manchin, the decisive Democratic vote, has said the priority should be on stopping inflation rather than on more government spending.
Republicans seized on Thursday's inflation report to blast Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package for fueling the spike in prices.
“Rampant inflation and soaring prices are crushing, crushing the American people,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday in remarks on the Senate floor. “If you haven't personally gotten a pay raise of 8% or more in the last year, then Democrats' policies have given you a pay cut.”
Efforts to lower prescription drug costs have long been a Democratic priority and popular with voters. Biden's drug proposals are included in his “Build Back Better” legislation but the sprawling package is all but dead in the face of stark opposition from Republicans and key holdout Democrats, including Manchin.
Once a Biden rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is urging colleagues to push the drug pricing legislation forward on its own.
“You have heard the speeches year after year,” Sanders told reporters at the Capitol this week. “’I’m going to lower the cost of prescription drugs! Vote for me!’ And nothing happens except that the cost of drugs goes higher and higher and higher.” Sanders said it’s “time to force real debate on this issue.”
Biden's proposals include capping out-of-pocket medication costs for Medicare recipients at $2,000 per year and insulin at $35 per month. In addition, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate prices for a limited number of prescription drugs and drugmakers would be required to pay rebates if they raise costs faster than inflation.
Boak reported from Baltimore. AP writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.