Voters will decide whether Biden or Putin gets blame on gas prices

‘Russia is responsible,’ president tells reporters in Texas

Gas prices are displayed outside an Exxon station in Washington on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Gas prices are displayed outside an Exxon station in Washington on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 9, 2022 at 5:30am

President Joe Biden’s announcement of a ban on Russian fossil fuel imports set off a barrage of renewed Republican attacks on his domestic energy policies, while Democrats rushed to point the finger at Russia for driving up gas prices.

The responses indicated both parties clearly recognize that Democrats’ chances of survival in the midterm elections could come down to whether Americans blame Biden or Russian President Vladimir Putin for skyrocketing prices at the pump. Beyond the direct impact on American family budgets, gas prices carry a psychological impact about how things are going in the country generally.

Biden on Tuesday acknowledged the ban likely will prompt higher prices for American consumers but said he will try to minimize “Putin’s price hike here at home” and warned against attempts by oil companies and financial institutions to exploit the situation.

“Russia’s aggression is costing us all, and it’s no time for profiteering or price gouging,” Biden said.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that Americans support banning Russian oil 71-22 percent even if the result is higher gas prices. The sentiment ran across the political spectrum, with Democrats supportive 82-12 percent, independents 70-22 percent and Republicans 66-30 percent.

“Americans are ready to put a chokehold on Russia’s key financial lifeblood, oil, no matter what the consequences are at the pump,” Quinnipiac analyst Tim Malloy said in a statement.

Most imports from Canada

Overall, 3 percent of U.S. imports of crude oil came from Russia in 2021, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group for the refining industry. Of the rest, 61 percent came from Canada, 10 percent from Mexico and 6 percent from Saudi Arabia.

Biden’s action comes after the number of lawmakers calling for an import ban continued to grow in recent days. But it’s not clear how long the public’s stated support will hold, with both sides trying to make their case ahead of the November elections.

The Republican National Committee has been issuing statements slamming Democrats for high prices at the pump and name-checking House and Senate candidates from Virginia to Arizona.

“Biden promised to keep Putin in check,” RNC spokesperson Savannah Viar said in a statement. “He failed. He attacked American energy and has refused to expand domestic energy production. Prices have skyrocketed, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Focus on Keystone cancellation

Republicans have criticized Biden in particular for his first-day-in-office cancellation of a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude daily from Alberta, Canada. They’ve also trained their rhetorical fire on his decision to pause new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

The Democratic National Committee pushed back on those claims, saying the Keystone XL pipeline was years away from being completed and likely would have had limited impact on gas prices. Democrats also have highlighted how only a small percentage of U.S. oil production happens on the federal lands affected by the pause and noted that oil companies already hold thousands of unused permits.

Oil industry representatives have responded to the point about unused permits by saying companies often acquire rights to drill on land before exploring them and not all of those untapped areas actually hold viable oil reserves.

Biden faces competing political pressures from different supporters within his own camp. Voters who see the biggest threat in the future coming from climate change want the country to reduce production of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they emit. But working-class families concerned about their week-to-week budget may well wonder why domestic production isn’t higher.

Outproducing Trump

During Tuesday’s announcement, Biden disputed the suggestion that his policies are responsible for keeping U.S. production down, saying the country pumped more oil during his first year in office than in former President Donald Trump’s first year.

Asked later about his message to Americans on gas prices, Biden told reporters in Texas there’s little to be done in the short term and that “Russia is responsible.”

At a Tuesday press briefing, the chairman of the Democratic PAC Priorities USA, Guy Cecil, said inflation overall is something Democrats will have to address with both policy moves and political messaging.

“It’s to make sure that Americans understand what we are doing in real time to address the crisis, not, not just in regards to gas prices, but the things that we are doing on supply chains, the things that we are doing to equip Americans with the resources they need to respond to this,” Cecil said.

He also nodded to the concerns of voters focused on the environment, saying that neither climate change nor the crisis in Russia will be solved in the coming days.

“With the immediate need, I can assure you that young voters understand the challenges that we face in mitigating the calamity that’s going on in Russia and will afford us the ability to be as flexible as possible in the short term on that,” Cecil said.

Gas tax cut sought

Illustrating the political sensitivity surrounding gas prices, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., released a statement Tuesday backing the ban on Russian imports while simultaneously calling for passage of legislation he introduced along with several other swing-state senators to suspend the federal gas tax through the end of the year.

“I’m going to keep pushing to get this done, to lower rising costs for hardworking Georgia families,” Warnock said.

The issue is also influencing primaries playing out this spring. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the state’s open Senate seat, recently posted a video in which he’s talking about the high price of gasoline while standing in front of a gas pump.

“President Biden is right to release the 30 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and we should continue to do so to drive down prices at the pump,” he says in the video. “We need to use American energy to make American energy cheaper for American workers.”

And not to be left out of the conversation, Trump issued a one-line, all-caps statement on Tuesday that read, “BREAKING NEWS: HIGHEST GAS PRICES IN HISTORY! DO YOU MISS ME YET?”

Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this report.