Energy & Environment

White House seeks to get some credit if gas prices fall

AP-Noah Berger

Democratic strategists say it’s vital the White House use a projected fall in gas prices to counter Republican attacks by tying the decrease to Biden administration policies.

President Biden has taken a political hit from inflation, and gas prices in particular have done him damage. The average price at the pump when Biden took office was around $2.40 per gallon, but had risen to around $3.40 per gallon in November.

Republicans have blamed Biden for the high prices, linking his energy and economic policies to across-the-board inflation and lower fuel production domestically. In a July floor speech, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) decried the president’s “hypocritical and backward energy policy that is putting a target on American workers.”

The price of gas is projected to fall in the weeks ahead, with Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at price comparison website GasBuddy, projecting a decline of up to 25 cents a gallon. Tuesday projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggested prices will fall below $3 a gallon in 2022.

Presidents are always blamed for high gas prices, though prices rise and fall for a number of reasons that often stand outside the White House’s control, from international events to financial crises or — in the case of 2020 — a global pandemic.

But after taking blows for the high prices, the White House is signaling it wants to get some credit if there is some good news at the pump.

The White House so far has struck a balance between attributing a price drop to Biden administration policies and pointing to factors outside the government’s control.

On Thursday, White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted a Politico article noting the decline but added “we’ve got to make more progress” despite “moving in the right direction.”

 

On Wednesday, Biden himself cited recent price declines and said he would ensure consumers are not “gouged for gas.”

“The price of gas at the pump has already begun to fall nationally, and real pump prices in 20 states are now lower than the 20-year average,” he said Thursday, leaning into the positive economic news.

The White House has also worked to show it understands the frustrations people feel about high prices.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted after Thanksgiving that a drop in oil prices, largely spurred by the new omicron COVID-19 variant, had not yet directly translated to lower consumer prices.

“This has a real impact on the American people. It is incredibly frustrating,” Psaki said Nov. 30. “That’s why the president is so focused on it.”

And the administration is seeking to draw attention to energy companies.

A day after nothing the frustrations of Americans, Psaki noted that Biden has asked the Federal Trade Commission to probe whether energy companies have engaged in illegal activity.          

The White House and Democrats are worried about next year’s midterms, when Republicans need to just gain a handful of seats to win back majorities in the House and Senate.

Inflation and gas prices are a part of those worries, and Democratic political strategists say the White House faces a challenge in convincing voters to give it credit for good gas price news.

Democratic strategist Jon Reinish suggested that as prices rose, the party erred by “downplaying” the hardship.

“That just left a huge opening for Republicans to pounce [and for Democrats] to be seen as not recognizing a problem or ignoring a problem,” he said.

To blunt future attacks, he said Democrats must emphasize “that they’re aware that the problem exists.”

“Number one you got to show empathy. And Joe Biden can do that very well,” said Ian Russell, a partner at Beacon Media who spent six years with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “You’ve got to demonstrate that you understand that this is a problem. You can’t brush it aside or lecture people.”

Officials with the administration and the Federal Reserve at times over the last year have brushed off concerns about inflation as a temporary issue. Russell and others interviewed for this story suggested that is a mistake, politically.

“No one cares what the chairman of the Federal Reserve thinks, they care when their wife or their husband tells them what they saw at the grocery store, or when they went to fill up their gas tank,” he added.

Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said it’s essential that Democrats ensure a price drop at the pump is perceived as the result of White House action.  

“We need to talk, in specifics, about what Biden and Democrats are doing to help people lower costs,” Vale told The Hill. This includes not just targeted action like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve release announced just before Thanksgiving, but also earlier policies such as funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in the American Rescue Act or tax credits for electric vehicles, he said.

“And a family’s costs can’t just be looked at in isolation, so [Democrats should] also remind folks what we’re doing for non-energy related costs,” Vale said in an email, citing policies like the child tax credit and Democratic efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

“But politics is also about drawing contrasts so it’s also important to remind people that Republicans are opposing all of these things,” he added. “Republicans are talking a lot about inflation but they voted against helping you with home heating costs for the winter.”

Just as important is that the administration lay out the steps it’s taking to address energy issues such as gas prices, Reinish said.  

“Whether that’s tapping into the strategic oil reserves, whether that is working with the major gas, oil and energy companies, or whether that is putting pressure on OPEC, or foreign companies, countries or organizations, Democrats have to consistently show that they recognize the problem, they feel it and that they’re taking action,” he said,

Some strategists are skeptical a drop in prices will boost Democrats in the way the increase in prices has hurt them, regardless of the political messaging.

“It’s much easier to blame a politician for an increase in the gas and gas prices than to credit a politician for decreasing gas prices,” said a Democratic strategist who asked to speak on background. “If they go down far enough, they’ll fade as an issue and something else will come along that people are discontented about, and that’s a danger of being in power.”

Tags Bill Cassidy Climate change economy gas prices Inflation Jen Psaki Joe Biden Ron Klain

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