Rising gas prices pose a fresh election year challenge for President Joe Biden. He’s balancing concerns about costs at the pump in the U.S. against calls from both parties to step up penalties on Russian President Vladimir Putin following his invasion of Ukraine.
In announcing a ban on U.S. imports of Russian oil on Tuesday, Biden was blunt in warning that while the move would hurt Putin, “there will be a cost as well here in the United States.” He sought to avoid being blamed for that by dubbing it “Putin’s price hike.”
Later, while arriving on a visit to Texas, Biden was asked if he had a message for the American people about gas prices and responded, “They’re going to go up.”
“Can’t do much right now,” the president added in response to questions. “Russia is responsible.”
That’s a message the president may have to reinforce repeatedly in coming days as drivers in the U.S. adjust to the shock of rapidly increasing gasoline prices, which reached a record average of $4.17 per gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA. That increase, combined with concerns about the rising cost of other goods, could add to the headwinds Democrats are facing heading into this year’s midterm elections.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sought to frame the moment as one that goes beyond politics.
“For many in our caucus, and I think on the other side, it’s a moral issue,” he said. “You don’t want to fuel the Russian war effort.”
Still, top Republicans blamed Biden for the higher gas prices, and assailed the White House for promoting climate change-fighting environmental measures that they said had hurt U.S. energy production domestically and helped drive fuel prices up.
At the same time, many in the GOP have been pressing the president to cut off imports of Russian oil, a contributing factor to the market volatility. Last year, the U.S. imported nearly 700,000 barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products from Putin’s country.
Former President Donald Trump, who is nearly alone in his party in calling Putin “smart” following the invasion, issued a statement noting record-high gas prices and asked “DO YOU MISS ME YET?”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Democratic “policies are why we are here in the first place.”
Republican Rep. August Pfluger, who represents a portion of West Texas’ oil patch, called banning Russian oil imports “great,” but also a “lesser step.”
“It is time to unleash American oil and gas,” Pfluger said, contending that the White House’s ”assault on the oil and gas industry has created a weakness in the United States.”
Caught in the middle is much of the American public, torn between wanting to support Ukraine and pocketbooks ready to be further squeezed. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday — before Biden’s Russian import announcement — found that as many as 7 in 10 Americans suggested they’d support a “ban on Russian oil,” even if it meant higher gas prices.
But many drivers said the sticker shock was still a lot to digest.
“How long this can go on? Will we be willing to pay four, five dollars, six dollars” a gallon? wondered Vikas Grover, who was filling up in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Virginia, prior to the White House’s Russian oil announcement.
“It just disrupts the whole budget,” Grover said. “If it becomes unsustainable, you know, this all falls apart.”
David Custer, a Virginia resident who was paying $60 to fill up his SUV before Tuesday’s announcement, said Biden should undo executive actions he issued to protect the environment upon taking office and instead promote U.S. “energy independence.”
“Those that work to resolve the issue will get my vote,” Custer said. “Those who continue the path that we’ve been on recently will not.”
Still, Asiya Joseph, who was filling up her tank in Brooklyn, New York, said, “I don’t think that it’s fair to blame the Democrats for something that may be somewhat not under their control.”
“This is a response to what’s happening over in Ukraine,” said Joseph, who added that COVID had also likely contributed to higher prices.
Samantha Gross, a fellow and director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Democratic-leaning Brookings Institution, said gas prices were already on the rise as global markets coped with increasing demand as the coronavirus pandemic began to recede — but are up even more amid questions about international supply because of the Russia-Ukraine war.
“You drive down (the road) and there’s the price and a great big sign right next to you. So we’re always really aware of what gasoline costs. And it’s often a big political issue for whoever’s in charge in the presidency and Congress,” Gross said. “But, the truth of the matter is, is that oil prices are set on a global market based on global conditions. And there’s very, very little that Congress or the president can actually do about them.”
Even if Biden were to loosen environmental rules, it’s unlikely oil and natural gas production around the U.S. could ramp up fast enough to ease currently spiking prices at the pump. In the meantime, the Biden administration has approached oil-rich Venezuela and its socialist President Nicolás Maduro — drawing still more criticism from Republicans.
“Never should we think that foreign oil is better than American independence when it comes to energy,” said Rep. Yvette Herrell, a New Mexico Republican. She also criticized the Biden administration for scrapping work on the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. Even if that project had been allowed to continue, however, it probably wouldn’t have been far enough completed to immediately stabilize oil prices.
Gross said the Biden administration could further tap into the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as it did to try and calm rising gas prices in November. The White House announced Tuesday that it had committed to releasing 90-plus million barrels from the reserve this fiscal year.
“In the short term that’s the way to help keep prices down,” Gross said. “But in the long term, if we continue to see the war effort from President Putin, it’s a difficult situation.”