News brief: voices from Ukraine, Biden to visit Pa., economic preview
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the lead-up to any kind of conflict, as leaders negotiate and world powers take sides, the voices of real people often get lost in the mix.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So we're going to hear some voices now from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Suppose you were in a city with a Russian army just a few hours drive away.
MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz recently returned from Kyiv, and he joins us on the line from his home base of Berlin. Hey, Rob.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So what did folks tell you? I mean, how likely do Ukrainians believe that a Russian attack really is?
SCHMITZ: Well, I interviewed dozens of Ukrainians while I was in Kyiv over the past week. And first off, I should point out that Kyiv, while it is the capital city of the country, it represents just 3 million out of 44 million people in the country. And, of course, everyone has their own opinion on this topic. But, yes, most people I spoke to in the capital believed Russia has sent more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine's border, not as an elaborate scheme to prevent Ukraine to join NATO or to get other concessions from the West but to actually stage an attack on their country.
SCHMITZ: And the latest reports we've seen that Russia is reportedly sending mobile medical units to the border could be more evidence of that.
MARTIN: So if that does happen, I mean, if an attack does come from Russia, do the Ukrainians you spoke with, I mean, did they talk to you about plans to get out of the country?
SCHMITZ: Well, nearly everyone I spoke to said they would actually stay in Kyiv. And not only that, many people I spoke to said they would volunteer to fight against invading soldiers. I spent an afternoon in the city's Arsenalna subway station. It is the deepest station in the world, and it would be used as a bomb shelter. I spoke to Ivan Pokatilov there. He's a student who thinks most of Kyiv's residents are ready for a Russian attack.
IVAN POKATILOV: Most people are - they're not afraid. They're just like, yeah, it's going to happen sooner or later. Kyiv will be the top priority target, I think.
POKATILOV: The city can be sieged - not, like, attacked or bombed to the ground, more like sieged.
SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, he didn't think Russia would actually bomb the capital because they would need the city's infrastructure if they wanted to administer it.
MARTIN: I mean, it's amazing how matter of fact he sounded - right? - just resigned and, like, yeah, this is going to happen. I mean, Ukrainians are used to this. I mean, it's been years of threats and fighting and aggression from Russia.
SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's important to remember that Ukraine has been at war with Russian-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine for eight years. In 2014, Russia also invaded and occupied Crimea. I spoke to Crimean musician Shevkat about this, and here's what he told me.
SHEVKAT: (Speaking Ukrainian).
SCHMITZ: And he's saying here that for his family who are left in Crimea, there is no rule of law. When the Russian police say something, they have to do it. They've turned his hometown into an Orwellian police state, he says. And he says he's scared they'll do the same with the rest of the country, too, should they succeed in occupying it.
MARTIN: Did the Ukrainians you talked with, did they have anything to say about what role the international community should be playing right now?
SCHMITZ: Yes, they want the international community, first and foremost, to take the threat of Russia seriously. You know, there are reports that Germany's government and others in Europe think Putin's bluffing with all these troops, and thus they don't take the threat as seriously. In a call with President Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy questioned whether an invasion was imminent, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today spoke positively about security proposals sent to Russia by the U.S. So those are signs that Russia has not made up its mind yet. But many Ukrainians I spoke to said to me, look, we've had firsthand experience with Putin's hybrid warfare and now this and that Putin's Russia is not only a threat to us in Ukraine but to any country that values democracy.
MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.
SCHMITZ: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. I think it's safe to say the midterm campaigns have started because even though the White House is saying, hey, President Biden is hitting the road today because he just wants to go talk directly to Americans, Biden's not going just anywhere. He's going to the ever critical state of Pennsylvania.
INSKEEP: Which happens to be a state with open races this fall for governor and the United States Senate. So there's one of the Senate seats that will decide control of Congress next year. Biden is going to talk about addressing supply chain challenges and how he intends to create jobs. And behind the scenes, of course, he has a big decision to make about the Supreme Court.
MARTIN: Indeed. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is going to be traveling with the president, and she joins us now. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Let's start with that retirement of Stephen Breyer from the Supreme Court and this pending decision. What does this mean for Biden in this moment?
KEITH: It is a big change in topic. Up until now, there has been a lot of focus on the troubles that he's had getting his agenda through Congress, and his Democratic base was really disappointed. And those are the very people that the party needs to turn out for the November elections. Now he has this opportunity to follow through on a campaign pledge, and he said yesterday he fully plans to nominate a Black woman to the nation's highest court, which would be a first. Karen Finney is a Democratic strategist.
KAREN FINNEY: It's just exciting, the history-making opportunity. At the same time, from a political context, it is an opportunity for the president to keep another promise to the American people.
KEITH: Biden said yesterday he would name his pick by the end of February, and Senate Democrats are planning to move quickly after that.
MARTIN: So he might talk about that on the road today. He's going to Pittsburgh, huh?
KEITH: He is going to Pittsburgh. He's following in a long line of presidents who, when facing some difficulties with Congress, head out into the country.
KEITH: And he is someone who certainly gets energy from talking to people. You can expect to hear him talk up the incredibly fast economic growth in 2021 - those numbers came out yesterday - the bipartisan infrastructure law. He'll talk about things he's doing to revitalize American manufacturing - they're in the steel city - and address supply chain challenges that are feeding inflation. This is where we get to politics. Rising prices are something voters care about. Republicans plan to campaign on that in November. I spoke with former Republican Senate leadership staffer Brian Walsh about that.
BRIAN WALSH: I think he was correct in recognizing he does need to get out of Washington more. At the same time, he's politically held hostage to a number of things, both domestically and internationally right now, that he can only have so much impact on right now.
KEITH: You know, things like voting rights legislation and his plan to invest in social safety net programs, which both stalled, the situation in Ukraine that could overtake all the news if it goes poorly. But this is now a midterm election year. President Biden needs to begin defining the choice for voters, and that's what trips like this are about, showing that he cares about issues that voters care about and making the case for Democrats to stay in power.
MARTIN: What do you make of the reports that some prominent Pennsylvania Democrats aren't going to be there today standing by the president?
KEITH: Yeah. The Associated Press reported that two top Pennsylvania Democrats have scheduling challenges, which probably wouldn't get much notice, except that earlier this month, when the president was in Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams also had a scheduling conflict.
KEITH: This is an optics thing, but the concept of optics may only matter to political commentators and not actual voters nine months before an election.
MARTIN: So true. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. We're going to get a slew of fresh data today showing how much money people are making, how much they're spending and what's happening with inflation.
INSKEEP: Rising prices have already prompted the Federal Reserve to signal it's going to be raising interest rates soon. That got the stock market churning. The Dow Jones Industrial Average swung up and down more than 700 points yesterday before ending just about where it started.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us for a preview of what's coming this morning. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Fresh data sounds like fresh bread but less delicious. What are we likely to learn today?
HORSLEY: (Laughter) Not so, Rachel, for data nerds. This is like Christmas morning. There is a whole lot of information that's about to get unwrapped, and we're going to find out if it's a nice gift or a lump of coal. The Commerce Department will be out with a report on personal income and spending for December. Forecasters think spending probably took a hit last month, mainly because of the omicron wave but also perhaps because some folks did their holiday shopping early this year. Along with that spending report, we will get the Commerce Department's take on inflation. We've already seen the Labor Department's measure, which showed prices in December up 7% from a year ago. The Commerce Department's yardstick is a little bit different, though, and this is the one inflation watchdogs at the Federal Reserve pay most attention to.
MARTIN: So the Fed has already said it's likely to start raising interest rates in March to try to rein in this inflation. How will today's numbers inform the Fed's actions?
HORSLEY: One thing the Fed is going be watching closely today is a number that's ordinarily kind of obscure. It's called the Employment Cost Index, and it measures what businesses have to pay for workers, including both wages and benefits. It only comes out every three months, and it was the fall reading three months ago that really got the Fed's attention and made policymakers think inflation could be a more persistent problem if labor costs continue to climb. The concern is that if higher wages get passed into higher prices and then that leads to demands for still higher wages, you could find yourself in a sort of 1970s-style inflation spiral. This morning, we're going to get the winter measure of labor costs, and Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and his colleagues are going to be watching to see if they continue to climb at a rapid pace. That would confirm what Powell told reporters on Wednesday, which is that he thinks the labor market is really tight right now.
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JEROME POWELL: Wages are moving up at the highest pace they have in decades. If you look at surveys of workers, they find jobs plentiful; look at surveys of companies, they find workers scarce. And all of those readings are at levels, really, that we haven't seen in a long time and in some cases, ever. So this is a very, very strong labor market.
HORSLEY: That's why Powell thinks the economy can handle somewhat higher interest rates without stalling the recovery. And, in fact, he and his colleagues think it's going to need higher interest rates to bring inflation under control and keep the recovery going.
MARTIN: But, Scott, when Powell says wages are rising at the highest pace in decades, I mean, that's a good thing, no?
HORSLEY: Generally speaking, yes, we've seen stronger wage gains this past year than we did in the decade before the pandemic. And encouragingly, some of the biggest pay hikes have gone to people working typically low-wage jobs in restaurants and hotels. They got a bump about 16% in December from a year ago. Average wage gains, though, are averaging closer to 6%. And while that still sounds pretty good, if inflation's 7%, then the average worker's losing ground. That's why the Fed is so eager to get prices under control.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley breaking it all down. Thank you so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: Hey, one more thing before we go. Steve got a chance to sit down with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. And this was a fascinating conversation because while we have all been focused on Ukraine, the ambassador, Steve, warned about a possible war thousands of miles away.
INSKEEP: He sure did. His name is Qin Gang, and the possible war the ambassador was talking about was over Taiwan. He accused the island's government of seeking formal independence from China. And he said if things continue as they have been going, it will likely involve the United States in a military conflict. Let's listen to his exact words.
QIN GANG: Taiwanese authority is working down the road to reverse the independence, emboldened by the United States. So China will not commit to giving up the un-peaceful means for reunification because this is deterrence. Let me emphasize this - the Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States. If, you know, the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, you know, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely involve China, the United States, the two big countries in the military conflict.
INSKEEP: To say military conflict with the U.S. is likely if things continue, that is considered unusually direct warning, although China has made more general threats before. The U.S. has long supported Taiwan's government, which is separate from but not formally independent from mainland China.
MARTIN: If you want to hear Steve's interview with the Chinese ambassador, check it out on NPR's MORNING EDITION.
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