By Maegan Vazquez, CNN
This holiday season looks very different from the last for many Americans, when Covid-19 test shortages and an Omicron variant surge disrupted numerous family celebrations.
But the country is contending with a new set of complex challenges this late fall and winter. Even though Covid tests as well as an updated booster are largely accessible and Thanksgiving holiday travel nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, a slew of pressures on the global economy and a recent surge in respiratory illnesses are expected to continue to impact on Americans in the coming months, leaving President Joe Biden with the challenge of addressing how to quell national anxieties over matters sometimes outside of the executive branch’s control.
The latest data from the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index shows American consumers are still not feeling very confident about the state of the US economy this holiday season. Concerns remain, for example, about high costs across spending categories associated with the holidays, despite some moderation in inflation.
While prices on airfares, gas and hotel rooms are down from the record levels hit earlier in 2022, they’re still among the highest on record for this time of year. The ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving meal had been estimated to cost shoppers 13.5% more this year compared to last, the market research firm IRI predicted earlier this month, using data from October — although some food costs appear to have declined closer to the holiday.
The White House maintains that Biden remains laser focused on tackling inflation and lessening the impacts of high prices — a major strain this year that’s been felt globally as a result of a myriad of factors, including supply chain disruptions and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“We are seeing signs of progress ahead of the Holiday season — grocery prices rose by 0.4% in October, a significant deceleration from the increases this summer, and the smallest increase since December of last year,” a White House official told CNN, adding that input costs (the cost to produce a good or service) “have declined for the last 2 months, which points to more progress on grocery prices in the months ahead.”
Other potential product shortages and price hikes could be seen as early next year, as concerns over a potential rail strike have resurfaced after the largest rail union recently announced its rank-and-file members rejected a tentative agreement forged in September.
Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, had told CNN that Christmas holiday inventories are not likely be broadly impacted by a strike. But he conceded that a rail strike in early December could disrupt the shipment of some larger and bulky items that are transported by rail this holiday season.
Biden got personally involved in discussions to reach the tentative deal that averted a strike with the nation’s major freight railroads earlier this fall. And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had said he’s been directly involved in discussions once again. But on Thursday, the president appeared to contradict his top messenger, saying he is “not directly engaged” with railway and labor negotiators. “I can’t (comment) because it’s the middle of negotiations, still. My team has been in touch with all the parties… and I have — I have not directly engaged yet because they’re still talking,” Biden said.
Thanksgiving talking points
Ahead of this week’s holiday, White House officials shared a new graphic highlighting the president’s accomplishments “for chatting with your Uncle at Thanksgiving.” The talking points led with lines on efforts to lower costs and contended that “despite global challenges, we’re making progress.” One bullet point, however, misstated that there would be “NO taxes on people making above $400k — he kept his promise.”
Along with deploying a messaging strategy aimed at highlighting existing accomplishments, as Biden heads into the new year, the White House is looking to highlight ways the Inflation Reduction Act will lower everyday costs, the official told CNN. Since getting back from his latest foreign trip, Biden has already touted several provisions in the law that go into effect on January 1 — including home energy efficiency tax credits and a $35 cap on the cost of insulin for seniors on Medicare.
Home heating costs are also on the rise — up 18% nationwide on top of last year’s 17% spike, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
Several factors are driving hikes in home heating prices, including the war in Ukraine, OPEC+ cuts, a surge in energy exports, lower energy inventories, and a high demand for natural gas in the US electric power sector, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The Biden administration in November announced the distribution of $4.5 billion in federal assistance to help lower many Americans’ heating bills this winter through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. However, advocates say additional funding is needed. This month the Department of Energy also announced the allocation of nearly $9 billion to states and tribes for home efficiency programs under the Inflation Reduction Act.
And just as Americans gather with loved ones across the country this holiday season, there have also been concerns about cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, influenza and Covid-19.
The administration is embarking on a new, six-week push to deliver more updated Covid-19 boosters into arms. More than 35 million people in the United States have already received the updated bivalent booster shot, but that’s just a fraction of those eligible to get it.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said on “CNN This Morning” Wednesday that he is confident that the US will get through the current influx of respiratory viruses that are going around the country.
When it comes to RSV, Jha said “certainly a problem, we have seen it now, looks like it has peaked nationally, starting to turn down.”
“In terms of hospital capacity, we have been in touch with every jurisdiction around the country, we have been very clear if you need extra help, the federal government is ready to help, ready to send in support staff, ready to support, send in additional supplies,” he said. “I am confident we’re going to get through this, particularly if people step up and protect their families by getting the Covid and flu vaccine.”
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CNN’s Tami Luhby, Danielle Wiener-Bronner, Chris Isidore, Gabe Cohen, Matt Egan and Naomi Thomas contributed to this report.