LOS ANGELES — President Biden on Friday praised port workers for speeding up supply chains and said his legislative agenda would cut families’ monthly costs as he grapples with inflation that rose to a new 40-year high in May and remains a huge drag on his presidency.
The president also denounced oil companies for soaring gas prices, saying “Exxon made more money than God this year. Exxon, start investing and start paying your taxes.”
Speaking at the Port of Los Angeles, Mr. Biden deflected the worsening economic news by saying inflation is a global problem and even higher in some other nations, and said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is exacerbating the problem.
At the same time, he acknowledged that inflation is persistent and must be his top economic priority.
“But make no mistake about it. I understand inflation is a real challenge to American families,” he said from aboard the USS Iowa, a battleship commissioned in 1943 that operated in World War II, Korea and Cold War and is now a museum.
Mr. Biden pointed to past successes and signs of incremental progress. He said “core” inflation is stabilizing, trucker hiring is up and most people received their Christmas packages on time last year.
He also said there are 40% fewer containers clogging the L.A. port than in November.
“This May was the strongest month in the Port of Los Angeles’s history,” he said.
Sal DiCostanzo, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Member, Local 13, credited workers for labor that led local ports to “repeatedly shatter” cargo volume records. He also lavished praise on the president for “strengthening the role of labor within the economy and for upholding justice and democracy at every opportunity.”
Mr. Biden said additional help is on the way from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will assist communication at the ports and use cleaner fuels.
Help cannot come fast enough for many Americans.
The costs of goods and everyday living rose to a new 40-year high in May, with annual inflation increasing 0.3% to 8.6% and consumer prices rising 1% last month alone due to more expensive fuel, food and housing.
Economists had thought inflation was beginning to slow, but the latest data from the Department of Labor released Friday quashed that theory.
The war in Ukraine continues to exacerbate exorbitant price increases that were already taking place before Russia’s invasion in February.
Prices at the pump continue to set records almost daily, with the national average for a gallon of gas at $4.99. That’s 62 cents more than a month ago and $1.92 higher than one year ago.
Mr. Biden continued to point to Russia as the driver of high gas prices and accused oil companies of keeping supply low by refusing to drill.
“Why aren’t they drilling? Because they make more money not producing oil,” he said. “The price goes up, number one. Number two, the reason they are not drilling is they’re buying back their own stock, which should be taxed, quite frankly. Buying back their own stock and not making new investments.”
Grocery prices increased 1.4% last month and nearly 12% in the past year.
Omitting food and energy costs, inflation rose 0.6% in May, with the yearly rate slowing slightly from 6.2% to 6%.
Budget-watchers said Congress has a role to play.
“As the Federal Reserve continues to work to control inflation, it’s important that Congress and the president are helping to make the Fed’s job easier, not stand in its way,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “That means paying for new legislation, unwinding COVID relief, avoiding ill-advised measures that would worsen inflation such as student loan cancellation, and putting forward meaningful deficit reduction that lowers prices and tamps down on demand.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, said it is time for lawmakers to reel in the flow of dollars from Washington.
“Americans can’t afford everything from gasoline to food to clothes, can’t find baby formula, and are dealing with a fentanyl crisis that is wreaking havoc on our communities,” he said. “If my nearly 100 town halls are any indication, Kansans are not only mad, they are now panicked about Joe Biden’s inflation. This big spending and more borrowing must come to a screeching halt.”
Mr. Biden defended his multi-trillion legislative agenda, known as Build Back Better, which remains stuck in Congress. He says it will cap the cost of things like prescription drugs while people struggle to afford everyday goods.
“That would fundamentally affect the well-being of every family,” he said.
The president, who faces sinking approval numbers and a potential bloodbath for Democrats in November, tried to draw a contrast with Republicans. He said the GOP will cut back or pick apart Social Security and Medicare coverage for seniors even as they cater to wealthy corporations.
“They have a fundamentally different view on the role of government and who should pay what,” he said.
• Jeff Mordock reported from Los Angeles.