WASHINGTON — The price of gasoline has risen every day since Russia invaded Ukraine. Record US inflation causes sticker shock. And now President Biden is blaming the pinch on Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
“There will be costs at home as we impose crippling sanctions in response to Putin’s unprovoked war,” Biden said in a statement Thursday.
The president is betting that Americans are prepared to endure the financial pain that comes from an economic war with Russia. But Thursday’s news that inflation has hit a 40-year high is another stark reminder of how much he’s asking voters to sacrifice in an election year.
Eight months from the midterm elections, the pressing political question for Mr. Biden is whether the American people are ready to accept blaming the Russians, and not him, for the rising costs. Experts said prices had risen over the past year, mainly because strong demand, fueled in part by government relief spending, outstripped supply disrupted by the pandemic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only beginning to compound the problem.
“It’s certainly a challenge, but we don’t really have a choice to do it,” Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist, said of imposing financial sanctions on Russia. “There is broad support for standing up to Putin and implementing these sanctions, including those that will increase the cost of gas.”
Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have been lowered for months by the frustration of many Americans with inflation and the pandemic. But recent surveys of voter attitudes suggest that many Democrats and Republicans support the administration’s sanctions against Russia, even if the sanctions are bad for their wallets.
In an Economist/YouGov poll released this week, 66% of Americans said they approve of sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its invasion. In a Wall Street Journal poll, 79% of voters backed a Russian oil ban even if it meant energy prices would rise accordingly.
The findings are good news for Mr. Biden, who has come under Republican attack for failing to get inflation under control. Republicans blamed him for rising gas prices even as they backed his decision to ban Russian oil.
Officials familiar with his decision said Mr Biden had struggled for days over whether to cut Russian oil amid fears of accelerating the already rapid rise in gasoline prices.
Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, on Thursday accused the Biden administration of refusing to take responsibility for the rising costs.
“Prices continue to soar under the reckless policies of Biden and the Democrats,” Ms. McDaniel said in a statement. “Biden’s attempt to deflect blame is an insult to all American and small business owners struggling to afford the cost of everyday goods.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday that there was “no doubt that inflation could be higher over the next few months than it would have been. without the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that the administration’s goal would be to mitigate the long-term effects of rising costs.
Democratic strategists have pointed out that much of the criticism leveled at Mr Biden by Republicans is that he hasn’t done even more to confront Russia. The president has repeatedly said he is unwilling to send American troops to Ukraine, and the United States this week refused to take fighter jets from Poland and station them at a US airbase to possible use in Ukraine.
Every decision Mr. Biden makes, his party strategists say, is rooted in strategic decision-making, not political calculus.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
“Being in the situation he’s in brings a kind of political freedom,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “Virtually every indicator is working against him in this midterm election, and many of them are beyond anyone’s control. The best service he can do himself, the Democrats, is to be fearless, as strong and as honest as possible about the situation we find ourselves in.
Biden administration officials have tried to emphasize economic gains, including a streak of strong job growth that has persisted even through the latest wave of coronavirus cases. Just last week, Mr. Biden used his State of the Union address to try to refocus the nation on how far the economy has come since the recession caused by the pandemic, and he called the fighting inflation its “top priority”.
The Labor Department reported last week that US employers added 678,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8%, its lowest level since the start of the pandemic. Still, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen acknowledged on Thursday that despite economic progress in the United States, inflation remains a challenge.
“I’m not saying inflation isn’t a problem,” Yellen said at an event hosted by The Washington Post. “Inflation is a problem.”
Ms. Yellen noted that Russia’s war in Ukraine was driving up oil prices and causing gasoline prices to rise sharply in the United States. She said the Biden administration was working to insulate U.S. consumers from the impact of the sanctions, but she did not specify further steps to reduce gasoline prices.
Ms Yellen pointed to the Biden administration’s policies to reduce the cost of childcare and elder care as longer-term remedies to rising prices. She said that in the short term, it would be up to the Federal Reserve to fight inflation.
“Inflation is primarily the job of the Federal Reserve,” Ms. Yellen said. “We have to watch the Federal Reserve take action to bring inflation down and I’m confident the Fed will take the necessary action.”
Alan Rappeport and Jeanna Smialek contributed report.