ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — President Joe Biden gave a forceful defense of his economic record Thursday at a rally in the final days before the midterm elections, while warning that Republicans are backing policies that would gut the social safety net that families need for retirement and health care.
Speaking at a campaign event for the state’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Biden struck a populist chord, blaming big oil companies for high gas prices and the pharmaceutical industry for making prescription drugs tough to afford.
He also singled out Republican lawmakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia for benefiting from pandemic relief loans aimed at businesses while criticizing his plan to forgive student loan debt.
“Take a look at who’s complaining,” Biden said. “This I find fascinating. The people who are complaining — the MAGA Republicans who sit in Congress — had hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, in pandemic relief forgiven.”
“Who the hell do they think they are?” he said, in perhaps the biggest applause line of his 30-minute address.
Biden’s appearance was part of a western swing that took him to the west coast later in the day for a get-out-the vote event with Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. His remarks suggested that as Election Day approaches he is returning to bread-and-butter issues that voters tend to prioritize.
He gave a speech Wednesday that focused on the fragile state of American democracy and the threats posed by far-right groups that won’t accept the results of free elections. But in his address at a community center here, he only spent a few minutes on a theme that some Democratic strategists worry is too abstract to sway voters.
As an issue, democracy’s preservation pales in comparison to high prices and the economy. An NBC News survey last month found that given a chance to send a message with their vote, only 3 percent of respondents cited election integrity and voter rights as the ones they’d select. By contrast, 14 percent mentioned fixing the economy and reducing the cost of living.
“If our closing message is that democracy is on the ballot, it is really hard to tell that to voters who are paying more for groceries, gas and food,” said Chris Kofinis, a longtime Democratic strategist.
In fiery tones Thursday, Biden touted economic gains made since he succeeded former President Donald Trump — or, as he called him, “my predecessor.”
“When I took office, this economy was in ruins,” Biden said. “Today, we’re in a much better place, although people are still hurting,” adding that 10 million jobs have been created since he became president in January 2021.
“It’s been a rough four or five years for hard-working Americans,” he added. “A lot of families, things are still pretty darn tough.” But he pointed to “bright spots where America is reasserting itself.”
At 3.5 percent, unemployment is at the lowest rate in decades, he said. Gas prices, which topped $5 per gallon over the summer, have been dropping steadily and now average less than $3.80 a gallon, though they’re still higher than when Trump left office. And Americans burdened by student loan debt will be getting more breathing room, he said, under his plan to wipe out $10,000 for many borrowers.
He asked the crowd how many were carrying student debt. When hands shot up, he said, “Say goodbye!”
A federal appeals court last month temporarily blocked implementation of Biden’s student debt relief program. Biden has said he’s confident his administration will win that case.
On the brink of an election that will decide control of Congress, Biden on Thursday dispensed with the unifying message that underpinned his inaugural address. He depicted Republican lawmakers and large, wealthy corporations as venal forces making life tougher for most Americans.
Gas prices would drop further if only the major oil companies would make investments instead of using profits to buy back stock and enrich shareholders, he argued.
“These outrageous profits are the windfalls of war,” Biden said. “The industry has a choice: either invest in America or pay higher taxes for your excess profits and face restrictions.”
He skewered Republican policy proposals that he said would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare, mentioning a plan released earlier in the year by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that would require all federal legislation to be renewed by Congress every five years. If enacted, “you put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years” Biden said. (Scott has said he does not want to end either entitlement program, but instead wanted to draw attention to looming shortfalls that jeopardize their solvency.)
Biden got a warm reception here. A line of supporters wrapped around the building where the rally took place. Unable to squeeze inside, more than 100 people waited outdoors and were greeted by Biden before he gave his speech.
Marni Elci, 75, said that Biden “is doing the best he can. He’s not a charismatic soul like Barack Obama. He’s trying to get the economy in shape.”
Then she offered a caveat about the 79-year-old president: “I think at his age he will be too old to run. I don’t think people will vote for someone his age. I wish the Democrats would find someone with tremendous charisma and power and care for working people — normal people aside from the wealthy. That’s what we need in this country.”