If my headline sounds a little bit like an invitation to a conspiracy theory about the Bilderbergers master plan on global energy that’s because I borrowed it from Greg Sargent at the Washington Post. Sargent’s actual headline for his piece is “The dark, unsettling truths behind Biden’s reluctance to ban Russian oil.” What are those dark, unsettling truths? Well, you’ll be shocked to learn his story is about dastardly Republicans. Here’s how the piece opens:
We all know exactly what will happen if President Biden goes through with plans to ban imports of Russian oil amid mounting horrors in Ukraine, as he has been reluctant to do. The same Republicans loudly demanding this step will turn around and attack Biden over any resulting economic fallout.
Democrats, including the ones in the White House, are very aware that rising gas prices could be another blow to their fortunes this fall. That’s specifically why Biden’s sanctions against Russia did not include banning Russian oil. But as Sargent correctly points out, there’s a bipartisan push in congress for such a ban, including support from Nancy Pelosi.
But now the pressure from lawmakers is intensifying. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says the House might vote on legislation banning Russian oil imports this week. Many others in both parties are calling for the same.
This has put Biden in a jam. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Republicans are both calling for this ban while also attacking Biden over inflation and already-high gas prices.
So the dark, unsettling truth here is that Republicans are both pushing for tougher sanctions and hoping to clobber Biden over higher gas prices. But Sargent is side-stepping the central issue, i.e. should we ban oil from Russia as a way to show we’re all in on sanctions? Arguably at least, the answer is that we should because we’re currently in a race against time. Here’s how a NY Times piece (which Sargent linked to on another point) put it:
The problem the White House faces, current and former officials say, is one of timing. How long can Ukraine hang on? Can the sanctions affect Putin’s calculations quickly enough — if at all — to make a difference on the battlefield? And how can the administration juggle all this in the middle of a heated election season, with consumer prices rising at the fastest pace in 40 years?
“Look, there’s still a reasonable possibility that there’s a bank run and the entire Russian economy collapses next Wednesday,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official. “But the pace of sanctions is not as fast as the pace of war.”
So another, equally valid, way to look at this situation is this: Republicans and Democrats in congress are eager to see Putin fail and a ban on Russian oil could help make that happen. However, the Biden administration is holding back because it’s thinking about the midterm elections. If Russia’s invasion succeeds in another week or two, what is Biden going to say then about why he didn’t push harder when it might have mattered? Even Sargent acknowledges that Biden could arguably be taking a very different approach, one that sounds more like leadership:
It might be argued that Biden will have to communicate those stakes to the American people to get them to accept the sacrifice of higher gas prices to achieve that higher aim:
President Biden needs to speak plainly to Americans about the food/fuel inflation that Putin’s war imposes on the world. Prepare the country. No more of the glib “buy American” mental junk food in the State of the Union address. Real talk about real costs.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) March 6, 2022
To be sure, it’s unclear how much of an impact a Russian oil ban would have on domestic gas prices. As the Atlantic Council’s Edward Fishman helpfully explains, merely banning imports to the United States might not produce such onerous costs. But the broader goal should be to try to disrupt Russia’s oil sales globally, which could produce more economic turmoil, though there are various ways to mitigate it.
In other words, maybe we should be doing the thing Republicans say we should be doing. In fact, maybe President Biden should be the one leading that charge. Sargent wants to pretend that Republicans promising to hit Biden on inflation are the real problem, but, to his credit, I’m not even sure he buys it.
Here’s the thing Sargent doesn’t mention. Republicans were already planning to hit Biden on inflation. That’s been the case for months because polls show Americans are worried about it and it’s effective. As for hitting Biden specifically on gas prices, has Sargent looked at prices lately? The Biden administration has not, thus far, banned Russian oil imports but gas prices have already hit more than $4 a gallon on average nationwide. Here in California, premium gas is now $6 a gallon and in some places in Los Angeles it’s $7. So even if Biden refuses to ban Russian oil, prices are already up steeply and, yes, that’s a problem for consumers and it’s something the GOP will hit Democrats on this fall. So if Biden does nothing he’ll be facing the same GOP attack.
There’s only one way to mitigate that attack that I can see. That’s to do what David Frum suggested above, i.e. make a sustained pitch to Americans that in the absence of actually sending troops to Ukraine we’re going to do everything we can to stop Russia and right now that means some real pain at the pump.
If there’s any dark, unsettling truth here it’s that the Biden administration has clearly decided the American people can’t be convinced a little shared sacrifice is needed at this moment. The White House would rather hedge its bets on Russia and blame the GOP’s willingness to bring up gas prices as the reason they can’t show some leadership. That excuse might work for Sargent’s regular readers but I don’t think it’s going to be very convincing beyond that.