Sunday, August 14, 2022

Putin becomes political punching bag for soaring gas prices, offering cover for Biden

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In a matter of days, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine accomplished something that has become increasingly rare in Washington’s polarized political climate: uniting Republicans and Democrats.

The Russian president’s war against the sovereign country has offered President Biden and the Democratic Party an offramp from continuing to receive the bulk of the blame among their Republican counterparts for gasoline prices that are soaring to record levels across the country.

But the political calculation will only hold, Republican lawmakers and strategists told The Washington Times this week, if Mr. Biden heeds the mounting bipartisan calls to ban Russian oil imports.

“I’m placing the blame on Putin,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican. “This is Putin’s war. Putin has chosen this. And he’s chosen as one of his tools — one of his weapons — energy.”

Critics of Mr. Biden’s energy policies, including efforts to limit domestic fossil fuel productions, will always exist, suggested Sen. James E. Risch. But the Idaho Republican and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated his criticism moving forward would be targeted toward the Russian leader.

“Admittedly, when you get an upheaval like this, there’s always an uptick [in prices]. This isn’t our fault, this is Vladimir Putin’s fault, and that’s where the wrath should be,” Mr. Risch said. “I’m not speaking for all Republicans … I’m looking at where we are now, and how we’re going to go forward.”

Since Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine more than a week ago, the national average for a gallon of regular gas has spiked nearly 30 cents, according to AAA.

The U.S. imports nearly 700,000 barrels of oil each day from Russia, amounting to tens of millions of dollars per day flowing to Moscow’s massive energy sector that is helping fund Mr. Putin’s war. 

Despite the bipartisan push to implement an embargo, the White House remains opposed, for now, over concerns that Americans would face further pain at the pump.

Many proponents of a Russian oil ban have argued that U.S. energy production could backfill the void and prevent a price hike, but energy market strategists have said otherwise.
 
“We are mindful of minimizing the impacts on the public,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday. “Certainly, the rising price of oil and the impact on gas prices is one we are focused on.”

Republicans have signaled that while Mr. Biden deserves blame for inflation and high gasoline prices, Mr. Putin’s actions will now be the main culprit for continued rises in energy costs unless the president blocks efforts by Congress to ban Russian oil. 

Ms. Psaki skirted a question whether Mr. Biden would approve any related legislation that passes Congress.

“Then who owns that price increase? I would suggest that President Biden would own that,” Ms. Murkowski said. “I think we’re giving a path forward for the administration. There are some for whom they put climate change as their first priority.”

Mr. Putin has achieved bipartisan condemnation as a “ruthless thug.” And it’s his unpopularity and name recognition among Americans that veteran conservative strategist Rick Tyler said Mr. Biden should be leaning on.

“If he can unite the American people against Russia and then blame all of America’s domestic problems on the fact that we’re helping to preserve democracy in Ukraine and defeat Russia, I think that’s a winning political message,” Mr. Tyler said.
 
But energy costs are often complicated for presidential administrations more so than individual lawmakers. Consumers look to current administrations to assuage high prices, and asking Americans to help pay for the cost of war is unpopular.

Recent polling from Politico/Morning Consult showed that although Mr. Biden would be blamed by a majority of voters for gasoline hikes from America’s response, more respondents said they would place blame on Mr. Putin.

Asked why the White House felt Americans would be understanding of supporting Ukrainian liberty in a drawn-out foreign conflict, Ms. Psaki said it was vital to “stand up for democracy vs. autocracy, stand up to the actions of a brutal dictator.”



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