Pain at the pump drives Biden’s suffering in the polls

Source: By BEN LEFEBVRE, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Consumer sentiment has plunged in recent weeks as inflation climbed to the highest levels in more than a generation.

President Joe Biden speaks in Woodstock, New Hampshire.

The gasoline price spike feeding Americans’ inflation anxiety has the White House scrambling to show voters it’s got a plan to ease their pain at the pump.

Biden aides, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and top economic adviser Brian Deese, as well as the Senior Adviser for Energy Security, Amos Hochstein and White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and her top aide, Ali Zaidi, met on Friday at the White House to consider actions the administration could take to cool off energy prices, according to three people familiar with the meeting. They considered several options, those sources said, ranging from releasing oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve to ease gasoline prices, curbing crude oil and gas exports, and even softening biofuel blending rules for refineries.

Consumer sentiment has plunged in recent weeks as inflation climbed to the highest levels in more than a generation. Those rising prices are especially evident in the gasoline market, where drivers have seen the per gallon price jump to the highest levels in seven years. On top of that, homeowners are bracing for expensive heating bills this winter, with natural gas costs more than twice the year-ago level.

That’s handed Republicans an easy attack line to highlight the sharp differences in the two parties’ energy policies.

“The people of America will pay dearly for the energy that we are not producing in the United States, because what Joe Biden did in Glasgow was beg OPEC+ to sell more energy and produce more oil for the United States to buy,” Sen. John Barrasso said at a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

The inflationary pressure has helped drive Biden’s approval polls to just 41 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. About half of respondents put the blame for rising inflation on the White House — not the supply chain issues related to the pandemic recovery that most economists say is most responsible for driving up prices.

Republicans have also pointed to Biden’s January move to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline project and later pause auctions of federal land for oil drilling as the culprit, though energy experts have said those actions have had no near-term effect on supply levels or prices.

The White House, which did not comment for this story, has recently stressed that is was looking closely at the situation.

“The message to Americans is that we’re not just closely and directly monitoring the situation — which, of course, we’ve been doing — but we’re looking at every tool in our arsenal,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Friday. “Our view is that the rise in gas prices over the long term makes it an even stronger case for doubling down our investment and our focus on clean energy options so that we are not relying on the fluctuations and OPEC and their willingness to put more supply and meet the demands in the market.”

Democrats have been split on one of the executive branch’s easiest tools to wield: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Energy Department currently holds more than 600 million barrels of crude oil in its storage facilities, which Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said could be tapped to lower prices.

The oil industry objects to using those barrels to control prices, arguing the stockpile is designed to be tapped only in the event of a supply crunch, like when DOE released some oil in September because of the disruptions that occurred after Hurricane Ida crippled producers’ Gulf of Mexico operations.

Even Democrats are split on its use, with Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling over the weekend for Biden to order a release of oil, a move that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday he opposed.

In the meantime, energy market experts say the rise in global oil prices has yet to spur oil companies and state-owned producers around the world to ramp up their drilling. Even in the U.S., oil producers have so far been wary of spending money to increase production, fearful of another economic shock like the 2020 crash that decimated their balance sheets and sent dozens of oil drillers into bankruptcy.

That’s left the Biden administration to call on OPEC nations and Russia to open the taps to ease the price pressure, a move derided by Republicans as average gas prices hover near $3.40 a gallon, 60 percent higher than a year ago.

“Inflation is what’s on everybody’s mind and you’re seeing it across the board, but nowhere does it have a more direct impact on middle class voters than at the gas pump,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview. “Biden saying we just need to get Russia and Saudi Arabia to pump more oil is just a bad joke.”