Administration

How Biden came around to banning Russian gas and oil

The White House knows it risks a serious political hit if gas prices continue to rise.

But on Tuesday, President Biden decided the risk was worth it in order to punish Moscow further for its war in Ukraine and to respond to bipartisan calls to cut off Russia oil and gas.

A few factors made a difference in Biden’s decision.

Political support for cutting off Russia in Washington and nationwide is high, and voices in both parties were calling for the move.

Russian imports also make up a relatively small amount of the U.S. supply. Russia last year accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. foreign imports of crude oil and about 1 percent of the U.S. supply overall. 

The desire to take a stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin is also high, making it difficult to avoid the choice even in a difficult midterm election year and a populace already irritated with rising prices.  

“These decisions aren’t easy. There are risks involved, but I don’t think anyone can stand by and watch what’s happening over there and not take action,” one Biden ally said in judging the move.

In his remarks announcing the decision, Biden acknowledged the risk he was taking — and the potential costs for Americans.

“I said I would level with the American people from the beginning, and when I first spoke to this, I said defending freedom is going to cost us as well in the United States,” he said.  

He then played to anti-Putin sentiment in the United States, which is being fed by horrific images of civilian casualties at the hands of the Russian military in the media.

“Americans have rallied to support the Ukrainian people and made it clear we will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war,” he said.

The White House made the announcement after several days of internal deliberations and conversations with European allies and members of Congress.

It took the step after Russia had escalated its military attack on Ukraine in recent days, striking urban areas and killing civilians.

In describing the decision, officials said the administration couldn’t stomach not making Putin pay as much as possible.

“The president, he’s said many times now that dictators need to pay a price for their aggression or they’ll just cause more and more chaos and increase costs and threats for America and people all over the world. So that’s why he has decided to stand up to Putin’s aggression,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We think this is a time for American resolve. There will be costs for standing up to Putin, but we’re doing all we can to mitigate those costs.”

The administration also hopes the public will blame Putin.

Aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dubbed it a “Putin spike at the gas pump.” 

The decision was easier because of the momentum building on Capitol Hill for the step — even with gas topping $4 per gallon from coast to coast.

Polls also gave the administration some confidence. The polls suggest Americans concerned about the Russian hostilities in Ukraine are willing to pay the added price. 

“It is very popular even knowing it may increase gas prices,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s leading pollster during his 2020 campaign.

Anzalone, who was not involved in the White House decision, pointed to recent polls from Reuters and Morning Consult showing that large swaths of U.S. voters support such a ban. 

When reporters asked Biden — who was traveling in Texas on Tuesday afternoon — if he had a message for Americans about the rise of gas prices, he replied bluntly, “They’re going to go up.” 

Asked if there’s anything he could do about it, he doubled down: “Can’t do much right now. Russia is responsible.”

The White House has concurrently been assessing options to mitigate any increase in fuel costs, including encouraging nations such as Saudi Arabia to boost production. Biden has already approved a release of millions of barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, and the administration has indicated in recent weeks a gas tax holiday is a possibility. 

“There are a range of options on the table,” Psaki told reporters Tuesday, without providing specifics.

While Republicans back Tuesday’s move, they’ve also been sharpening their attacks on Biden over spikes in gas prices and other everyday costs. Democrats say they’re ready for the hit.

“Republicans are going to attack him no matter what he does, so unlike [former President] Trump, he’s acting like a president and doing what’s best,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “A brutal dictator is attacking Ukraine and Biden has done amazing work to help unify NATO and the world on sanctions and now including energy too. 

“And if Republicans are going to try and make a political fight out of this, not sure they want to end up on the side of Trump and others who are siding with Putin over America,” he said. 

Tuesday’s move was different from other sanctions done in concert with Western Europe, which is dependent on Russian gas supplies.  

“We did not expect nor did we ask them to take the same step that we announced this morning,” Psaki said Tuesday. 

Still, European nations offered their own intentions to reduce reliance on Russian energy. The European Union pledged to phase out Russian oil and gas imports by 2030, and the United Kingdom said it would cut off imports of Russia oil and oil products by the end of this year.

“A unilateral move was done in a coordinated way, which is exactly the way to do it,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as the senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council under former President Obama. “At no point do you want to give Putin a sense that there are cracks in transatlantic unity.”

Kupchan said Biden’s decision taken together with other sanctions would further squeeze the Russian economy and encourage American companies to stop doing business in Russia. 

“I see this as a strategy of starting big and then turning up the heat overtime,” he said. 

Tags Barack Obama gas prices Jen Psaki Joe Biden oil imports Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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