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Week in politics: Biden on Russian nuclear threat; Herschel Walker's senate campaign

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden's words were blunt, direct and sobering this week when he said at a Democratic fundraiser in New York that for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the U.S. faces a real threat of nuclear war. NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us.

Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And let me quote the president directly. He said President Putin's statement that Russia intends to use, quote, "all forces and means, including nuclear," and that he wasn't bluffing raises what President Biden called the prospect of Armageddon. He hoped Putin had an off-ramp in mind. How do you read this?

ELVING: I think the whole world hopes Putin has an off-ramp and de-escalates this crisis. Biden's reference to the Cuban missile crisis, which was 60 years ago this month - that may be an effort to associate himself with what was regarded as an American victory at that time - a victory for John F. Kennedy, making the Soviet Union take its missiles out of Cuba. But, Scott, at this point, when we're looking at this particular situation, this word Armageddon, you know - that comes from the last book of the Bible, where it refers to the final battleground between good and evil. It's come to mean any sort of end-of-the-world scenario. And you have to wonder, what was the president thinking by dropping such a heavy reference at a time like this?

SIMON: Of course, President Biden's not responsible for Vladimir Putin's policies. But when he speaks of Armageddon, when he cautions, don't, don't, don't, does that just irritate Putin's most dangerous instincts to strike out and do something obviously dangerous for the world?

ELVING: We don't know. But this is not a time for a war of words. The stakes are too great. There is no, quote, "manageable nuclear conflict" - no doing it just a little bit. If that's what Biden meant to say, there may have been a less apocalyptic way to say it, but it's a point that needs to be made.

SIMON: Saudi Arabia announced this week it would cut oil production. That'll drive up gas prices. And by week's end, the stock market had lost its modest gains. Is the price of gas back, along with inflation, as a campaign issue?

ELVING: It's never really gone away as a campaign issue, but it got a good deal worse this week for Democrats. There was a gut punch from OPEC, a production cut so hostile it brought back the great oil shocks of the 1970s - bad memories. And then when we got this rather curious jobs report with fewer new jobs created but the unemployment rate still falling to a very low 3.5% - and that rather striking number means continued upward pressure on wages, which means more upward pressure on inflation and, therefore, on interest rates, reducing the value of stocks and increasing the likelihood of a recession next year.

SIMON: Isn't it hard to run by saying elect us, but we can't do much about the economy?

ELVING: It is awkward indeed. So if you're in office, you say, brighter days are right around the corner. And if you're not in office, then you say, the people in power are uniquely useless, and anyone could do better.

SIMON: Ron, we are just, obviously, a few weeks from those midterms that we talk about week after week after week. What do you see reflected in the polls, and are you suspicious of them?

ELVING: Have to always wonder about whether or not the polls being as close as they are in most of these cases can really measure the distance between these candidates at this point. You do have a number of cases in the Senate races where the Republicans got a candidate who turns out to be more of a story than inflation, more of a story than things that people would otherwise be worried about. So where the Democrats can keep the focus on those controversial Republican candidates, they've got a good chance to hold on to the Senate. But it's important to them that the focus stay on those candidates and not on those issues.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.