Soaring inflation and food prices were front of mind during President Joe Biden’s Chicago area visit Wednesday, where during his first stop at a farm outside Kankakee he blamed escalating costs on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and offered relief to farmers.
Later, speaking to thousands of union electrical workers at their convention at McCormick Place, Biden pledged “we’re going to beat inflation” as he delivered an homage to labor and its role in creating middle-class “dignity” while lashing out at “the great MAGA king” Donald Trump and the Republicans who back him.
At his first stop, speaking in front of a sign that read “Lowering Costs for American Families,” Biden acknowledged the challenges facing American farmers after taking a brief tour of the 800-acre corn, wheat and soybean farm accompanied by its owners, Jeff and Gina O’Connor.
“Right now, America is fighting on two fronts: at home, as inflation and rising prices, and abroad, as helping Ukrainians defending democracy and feeding those who are left hungry around the world because Russian atrocities exist,” Biden said in a short speech on the farm. “The American farmers understand the war has cut off critical sources of food.”
Russian warships have obstructed access to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, leaving to starve those nations reliant on Ukraine for food supply, Biden said.
The president’s visit came as a report out Wednesday showed inflation slowed in April after seven months of relentless gains, a tentative sign that price increases may be peaking while still imposing a financial strain on American households.
Still, the report contained some cautionary signs that inflation may be becoming more entrenched.
Biden stressed that his administration was promoting ways to help farmers in keeping costs down. Farmers in the U.S., including the O’Connors, are helping on both fronts, Biden said, by cutting the cost of food at home and feeding those abroad.
“We have to keep investing in our farmers to reduce costs and ditch prices for consumers,” Biden said. “We have the most productive, most efficient farmers in the world here in the United States.”
Biden said his administration’s efforts for farmers include cutting the red tape to help provide insurance to a greater number of farmers who take the risk of planting two crops in the same year. His administration is expanding the number of counties eligible for such insurance.
OC Farms has been taking that risk right for 30 years, O’Connor told the Tribune, this year planning to plant soybeans after a summer wheat harvest. But Kankakee County isn’t eligible for “double-cropping” insurance, O’Connor said.
The farmer said he “appreciates” the work Biden’s administration is doing to fill the holes in the agricultural industry.
“I applaud President Biden’s efforts to place a spotlight on global food challenges created by Ukraine conflict right now,” O’Connor said. “I also applaud his eagerness to work hand in hand with farmers getting healthy, high-quality food affordable and accessible for people everywhere.”
Other ways Biden said he’s working to help farmers and consumers include reducing costs at the fuel pump by allowing the sale of biodiesel in the summer months, when it is traditionally phased out. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested $250 million into fertilizer production as fertilizer prices soar, Biden said.
Biden, who earlier had doffed his jacket on a stifling afternoon, repeated his complaint that four big companies dominate the meat production industry and a lack of competition has led to higher prices for consumers while lowering the prices farmers get for their products.
Joining the president were U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, a Matteson Democrat and head of the Illinois Democratic Party, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“Very few people in this country fully appreciate that agriculture is big business,” Vilsack said. “It is, in fact, the vehicle through which we become a food-secure nation.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cut off a major source of agricultural products, including wheat and corn, while also disrupting global supply chains for fertilizer, the White House said on Wednesday.
The Labor Department reported Wednesday that consumer prices jumped 8.3% last month from 12 months earlier. That was below the 8.5% year-over-year surge in March, which was the highest since 1981. On a month-to-month basis, prices rose 0.3% from March to April, the smallest increase in eight months.
Categories including food and gas that are everyday costs for most Americans have skyrocketed over the past year. Grocery prices, for example, have shot up 10.8%, the largest year-over-year jump since 1980. The cost of a gallon of gas fell 6.1% in April but is still up nearly 44% from a year ago.
As Biden was heading to Kankakee, a small group of Trump supporters congregated outside the Kankakee fairgrounds bearing flags, posters and USA garb. “You owe me gas money,” one sign read. Several touted Trump’s false narrative that he was the winner of the 2020 election.
In Kankakee County, though, Trump bested Biden by more than 8,000 votes in the 2020 presidential election.
After a quick flight aboard Marine One back to Chicago, Biden addressed a supportive audience of several thousand at the 40th convention of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Biden’s tone became more political in an atmosphere resembling an old-fashioned labor rally.
He criticized “ultra-MAGA Republicans” for blocking his proposed changes to tax policy aimed at increasing taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000, while GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, head of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, has proposed higher taxes on incomes of below $100,000.
“They don’t want to solve inflation by lowering the cost. They want to solve it by raising your taxes and lowering your income,” Biden said of Republicans, though Scott’s plan has been dismissed by GOP leadership, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Biden also noted that Scott’s plan would include an every-five-year vote to reauthorize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“Now really, ask yourself, how are you going to sleep at night knowing that every five years, everything you’ve paid into may not be there? This is serious. The MAGA Republicans are going to vote on whether you will have Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Biden warned.
Biden frequently brought up one of his administration’s successes, the bipartisan passage of a massive federal infrastructure package, and how it would help construction trades. He said that’s particularly true for electrical workers because it calls for increasing broadband infrastructure and the creation of a network of charging stations for electric powered vehicles.
“This law is more than about rebuilding the infrastructure. This law is about rebuilding the middle class,” Biden said as he also touted his support for federal legislation that makes it easier for workers to organize.
“Let’s be clear for our Republican friends, you can’t say you’re for working people and vote against the PRO-Act,” the president said, using the shorthand for the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act.
“Workers join unions to gain power. That’s what it’s about. The only way to match power is with power,” Biden said. “Can’t count on the good graces of major corporations who decide they’re going to help. Power is needed to be exerted, to deal with power. Power over the decisions that affect your lives.”
“Unions provide, in one word, democracy,” he said.
From McCormick Place following his 40-minute address, Biden headed to a small but high-priced closed-door fundraiser at the Marriott Marquis Chicago for the Democratic National Committee, where he was introduced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Ticket prices ranged from $100,000 to $365,000.
About 40 people attended the fundraiser, where Biden said Republicans have a “radical agenda,” citing among other things the attacks on Disney for what some party leaders say is an overly progressive agenda.
“It’s one thing to take on Disney World,” Biden told the gathering. “They’re going to storm Cinderella’s castle before this is over.”
Biden also acknowledged that maintaining the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress would be “hard.”
“Inflation is going to scare the hell out of everybody,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.