In his remarks this week announcing a U.S. ban on importing Russian oil and gas, Biden warned that this decision “is not without cost here at home.” This “cost” was a big reason the administration was wary of levying these sanctions in the first place. With gas prices already soaring and inflation at a 40-year high, the White House is obviously wary of taking any action that would inflict more financial pain onto Americans.
To help cushion the blow politically, Biden dubbed this likely surge in gas prices and inflation “Putin’s price hike.” Other Democratic leaders, including Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, are trying to wrap the imposition of economic pain around the flag.
“The notion that [Republicans] want to now come here and lecture us,” Jeffries said earlier on Tuesday, “when Vladimir Putin is the one responsible if gas prices increase significantly here in America — Vladimir Putin — and they shouldn’t provide any aid and comfort to him.”
Of course, there’s a limit to how much blame the Russian president can get for our current pain at the pump. While there has been a drastic short-term spike in gas prices over the last week, overall gas prices had been rising long before the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, voters have been giving low marks to Biden’s handling of the economy for the last few months, suggesting that this pivot to Putin will meet voter skepticism.
Even so, recent polling suggests that Americans are more willing to accept economic pain to punish Putin. A Wall Street Journal poll, published Tuesday, found 79 percent of Americans favored a ban on Russian oil imports, even if the prohibition increased energy prices. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found similar support (71 percent), even with the knowledge that gas prices could go up. A late February CNN poll found that just 34 percent of Americans thought that the impact on gas prices should be a “major concern” for U.S. policymakers as they considered next steps on Russia.
It’s understandable that as Americans watch the horror inflicted upon innocent Ukrainians, they want to deny any support — monetary or otherwise — to Putin. But, there’s sure to be a limit to this altruism, especially with such uncertainty about the final outcome. Will Americans feel as positive (and generous) if Russia succeeds in overthrowing the Zelenskyy government? Or, if this war drags on for weeks on end.
Moreover, short-term pain at the pump might be easier to overcome than if Americans weren’t already dealing with the sky-high cost of living.
Or, as L.A. resident Felipe Zeelya told the L.A. Times about balancing his concern with what’s happening overseas with his own worries about his livelihood. “It’s not that I don’t care. Problem is, I care more about gas.”
Then there’s the question of whether actions taken by the Biden Administration to try and lower gas prices — including reaching out to oil producing autocratic regimes like Venezuela — will bring more political backlash than political cover. There’s also a risk that younger, progressive voters, already some of the most disengaged and disappointed with the Biden Administration, may become further alienated if they believe the administration is spending more time trying to replenish — instead of replace — fossil fuels.
Guy Cecil, Chairman of the progressive group Priorities USA, acknowledged that Democrats need to focus on what’s impacting Americans today — notably high gas prices. But, he told me, that doesn’t mean they need to abandon their long-term climate strategy.
“We can’t solve the climate issue and Russia in the next couple of days,” Cecil said. Instead, Democrats need to “balance the long term approach with immediate needs. Young voters understand this” balance and will support it, he told me.
Republicans, meanwhile, are using the spike in gas prices as an opportunity to undermine Democrats’ climate agenda.
“Well, they own it; they’re the ones causing this,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer told NBC News. Previewing the likely GOP messaging for the fall, Emmer argued that Democrats are “the ones who shut it down in the first place, whether it’s drilling on federal lands, freezing all the permits a couple of weeks ago, killing the Keystone XL pipeline. They’re responsible for this like they’re responsible for inflation.”
However, given that the Keystone XL was less than 10 percent complete when Biden took office, and that it takes years to bring a drilling operation on line, even a reversal of these decisions would not send oil flowing to American consumers or reduce gas prices.
Just as Putin didn’t “cause” our current level of inflation, the Biden Administration’s policies aren’t responsible for the spike in energy prices. But, a successful campaign is one that wins the messaging war, not one that wins the fact-check.org seal of approval.
The war in Ukraine is not of President Biden’s making. But, as the party in charge of Washington, the economic fallout will impact the opinions of him and his party. Putin may be the instigator of the latest round of economic pain, but Democrats, not Putin, are on the ballot this fall.
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