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In Ukraine, Biden faces a crisis with little political benefit back home

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on Feb. 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on Feb. 15, 2022.Joshua Roberts / Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden warns that U.S. hasn’t verified Russian troops withdrawing from Ukraine border. ... NBC’s Benjy Sarlin looks at the cold reaction so far to a gas-tax holiday. ... Biden orders National Archives to turn over Trump visitor logs to the Jan. 6 committee. ... A new poll shows Marco Rubio ahead in Florida's Senate race, though by a smaller margin than Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lead. ... And San Francisco voters successfully recall those three school board officials.

But first: For Biden, the situation in Ukraine provides little political upside. And the goal is just to avoid bigger political downsides ahead of the November elections.

Say everything goes as well as the White House hopes — Russia pulls back its forces and war is averted. Under that best-case scenario, it’s highly unlikely that Biden gets credit from American voters, who are more focused on the nation’s direction, Covid, inflation and the state of the economy.

But say Russia invades (either fully or partially), war breaks out, blood spills and the West retaliates with economic sanctions. Well, that could have negative domestic political consequences for the president.

“A Russian invasion of Ukraine … would be likely to drive up gas prices amid the highest inflation in decades, wipe out significant gains in the stock market and give Republicans a new line of attack to argue against Biden’s foreign policy acumen — putting an already unpopular presidency on even shakier ground with voters heading into the fall midterm elections, Democratic strategists and pollsters said,” NBC’s Shannon Pettypiece, Scott Wong and Peter Nicholas write.

Little upside. Big potential downsides.

Especially if war gets in the way of the White House’s other plans.

Tweet of the day

Talking policy with Benjy: If we took a (gas tax) holiday

With gas prices on the rise, the White House and some Democrats are reportedly considering an old break-glass response: suspending the 18.4-cent gas tax.

The proposal has gained traction, according to the Washington Post, as the Biden administration looks for concrete steps to show they are on top of inflation. The story dropped the same day President Biden warned Americans that gas prices could shoot up further if Russia invades Ukraine and said he’d take action to help customers if that happened.

The last time a gas tax holiday was under serious discussion was in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama distinguished himself from rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain by opposing the idea, which he called an election-year “gimmick” that would save “pennies a day" while defunding an already stressed Highway Trust Fund, which finances maintenance and repairs.

Notably, senators who recently backed a bill pushing for a gas tax holiday, such as Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., Ralph Warnock, D-Ga., Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., are all in tight re-election fights. They propose plugging the hole in the trust fund with general tax revenue instead.

A lot has changed since 2008, but the reaction from wonks across the political spectrum has been, if anything, more hostile than Obama's. Climate activists, fresh off a Super Bowl packed with ads for electric vehicles, worry about slowing the transition from fossil fuels. Inflation hawks, like Larry Summers, worry a new tax cut will pump more cash into the economy right as the Fed is trying to cool off hot spending.

Several Democrats and Republicans who worked on the bipartisan infrastructure bill also came out against the concept on Tuesday. The group considered raising the gas tax last year, last done in 1993, and expanding it to cover electric vehicles to make up for shrinking revenue. The same political considerations that killed their effort could make it hard to undo a temporary tax cut.

Ellen Wald, president of energy research firm Transversal Consulting, told NBC News it was unclear how much a gas tax holiday might achieve its own goals. A decline in gas prices could cause consumers to drive more, which would then send prices back up.

“It might be a very short-term reprieve, but by the time we hit summer, it’s going to be exacerbated,” Wald said.

But there may not be great options. At the heart of the problem, Wald said, was reduced investment in drilling after years of weak profits.

The best hope for immediate relief? Peace on Earth.

“Clearly the price rise into the nineties [a barrel] has a lot to do with the geopolitical situation in Russia,” Wald said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the market right now.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 5

The number of senators who caucus with the Democrats (four Dems and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders) who voted against the administration’s pick to helm the Food and Drug Administration, who was narrowly confirmed Tuesday.

Joining Sanders were Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Conn.; Maggie Hassan, N.H.; Joe Manchin, W.V.; and Ed Markey, Mass. Confirmed by the slimmest of margins (50 votes, but without the need for a tiebreaker), Dr. Robert Califf takes charge of the agency that’s playing a big role in the U.S. pandemic response.

Other numbers you need to know today:

61 percent: The decrease in hospitalization rate from Covid for a baby 6 months or younger if its mother was vaccinated for Covid (two shots, either Moderna or Pfizer) while pregnant, per a new CDC study.

$11.7 million: How much former California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who left to run Trump’s social media company, had left in his campaign account and leadership committee as of the end of 2021.

$600,000: The amount of money two West Virginia GOP House members, Alex Mooney and David McKinley, have spent on ads as they face each other in West Virginia’s 2nd District.

78,208,662: The number of confirmed Covid cases in the U.S., per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 117,918 more since yesterday morning.)

929,004: The number of deaths from the virus so far. (That’s 2,747 more since yesterday morning.)

Midterm roundup

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., became the 30th House Democrat to announce that she is not running for re-election. That’s the highest number of House Democratic retirements since 1996 when 28 lawmakers headed for the exits, per Brookings’ Vital Statistics on Congress.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is leading Democrat Val Demings by 7 points among Florida voters, 49 percent to 42 percent, with 9 percent undecided, per a new Mason-Dixon poll. The poll also found that 40 percent approved of Biden’s performance in office, while 55 percent disapproved.

A panel of judges charged with drawing Minnesota’s new congressional boundaries released the new map Tuesday, leaving the political dynamics in each district largely unchanged, per the Star Tribune.

More progressive groups are coming to the aid of Texas Democrat Jessica Cisneros in her tight 28th District primary race against Rep. Henry Cuellar — J Street Action Fund announced Tuesday its dropping $100,00 on digital ads in English and Spanish on her behalf.

Politico reports there’s a new super PAC backing two top Republican women running for Senate — Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler and Alabama’s Katie Britt.

Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio isn’t running for Congress after all.

Ad Watch: Buckeye State battle continues

Mike Gibbons, an investment banker running for Senate in Ohio, is blasting his fellow contenders for the Republican nomination in a new ad. He compares former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken and author J.D. Vance to President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the new commercial.

“They're no different than Democrats because they're weak,” the ad’s narrator says about Vance and Timken. “J.D. Vance called Donald Trump an idiot and smeared his America-first policies as immoral and absurd. Jane Timken defended a RINO congressman after he impeached Trump,” the narrator continues.

Notably, the ad only attacks two of Gibbons’ competitors, leaving two other candidates, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and state Sen. Matt Dolan, unscathed.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The CDC is expected to loosen its guidelines on indoor masking as soon as next week.

The Jan. 6 committee has issued six new subpoenas related to the push to appoint “alternate electors,” including Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, Pennsylvania Republican State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor, and Arizona GOP Secretary of State candidate Mark FInchem.

Arizona moves one step closer to banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

A Georgia judge is done hearing arguments about the state’s redistricting and could issue a decision as soon as next week to throw out the new maps and delay the state’s primary election, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.