Democrats are facing a paradox on prices at the pump heading into an election where pocketbook issues are top of mind for Americans facing 40-year high inflation.
The party must show voters it’s sympathetic to the economic pains from sky-high gas prices and that blunting energy costs is a top priority.
But in the process, Democrats are inadvertently drawing increased attention to the record increases on President Biden’s watch, illustrating the quagmire that the party faces as dismal polls show the party and the administration are underwater with voters on handling inflation.
It’s no secret that Republicans, who have blamed the administration’s policies, have the upper hand as they try to retake control of Washington, lawmakers and strategists say.
“’Prices are this high,’ — that’s a much easier message to put out than: ‘We did this, this and this. Oil and gas go up when you come out of a recession, this is nothing unusual, it’s just what it is,’” Sen. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Democrat, said in a recent interview. “That’s not a campaign message that is going to be successful.”
The national average hit another all-time high last week of $4.60 per gallon, according to AAA. That’s 48 cents more than one month ago and $1.56 higher than a year ago. The average for diesel was $5.55 per gallon, a major contributor to broader inflation because of higher commercial transportation costs rippling through the economy.
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Critics accused Mr. Biden of saying the quiet part out loud last week during a diplomatic trip to Asia, when he said that high gas prices are part of an “incredible transition” away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.
“The ‘incredible transition’ that’s happening today with energy is we’re going from being a nation that’s energy dominant to energy dependent, going from a nation of prosperity to a nation of poverty, from a nation of wealth to a nation of weakness,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist who runs a political polling and consulting firm based in the nation’s capital, said his party can’t afford to stay silent on the issue, despite the political risks of talking more about it.
“You bring more attention to the problem, but it’s not something that’s going to go away,” he said. “Democrats have to turn up the temperature on this issue and be very aggressive in hitting at the oil companies.”
Democrats are facing a moment of deja vu reminiscent of the quandary they had with banning Russian oil imports.
They knew the ban would exacerbate fuel costs at a time when the party was already getting hammered by Republicans. But failing to take aggressive action to stem U.S. money flowing into Moscow’s war chest would have appeared as weak and kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Democrats hope that their first piece of legislation addressing fuel costs — a bill directing the Federal Trade Commission to go after Big Oil for allegedly “price gouging” consumers — will buy them some good grace with constituents as it makes its way through Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said elections are always about “the three M’s: mobilization, message and money.”
“It’s not about whether [inflation] exists or not,” the California Democrat told reporters last week. “It’s about the recognition and what are we doing about it.”
The price-gouging legislation narrowly passed the Democratic-led House last week despite four Democrats joining all Republicans in opposing it. But it’s doomed in the split Senate, which is why Democratic leaders have signaled from the start that the bill is more about a messaging opportunity.
Sen. Chris Murphy urged his colleagues to be “realistic” with voters on what can be done about sky-high pump prices, rather than giving false hope that Congress holds a magic bullet.
“I think we should be realistic about what government can or can’t do,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “Republicans are going to try to make it sound like it’s all within control of the administration and Congress. It’s not.”
Democrats have increasingly tried to combat GOP criticism by touting the price-gouging legislation and actions taken by Mr. Biden, such as tapping into the strategic petroleum reserve and lifting summer environmental regulations to allow primarily midwestern states to offer cheaper gas with more ethanol.
They have framed the debate as “something is better than nothing.” But it does not appear to have resonated with voters in the way Democrats hoped.
Polling and inflation projections show it’s likely to only get worse for Democrats ahead of the midterms.
JPMorgan is anticipating the national average of gas will surpass $6 per gallon by August during the summer travel season, when demand peaks.
A CBS News/YouGov poll published over the weekend showed 69% of voters feel the economy is “bad,” and 65% said Mr. Biden has been “slow to react” on important issues. A new Harvard CAPS-Harris survey showed just 35% of voters approve of the president’s handling of the economy, and 33% approve of his handling of inflation.
Republicans argue that current gas prices are the Biden administration’s own doing by prioritizing his climate agenda, and discouraging domestic oil and natural gas production.
Energy experts and analysts — and even some of the major executives at oil corporations — say the primary issues are a lack of global supply and domestic refining capacity reaching its limits following a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.