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Why Biden was forced into a ban on Russian oil

Analysis: A strange-bedfellows coalition of Republicans and climate-conscious Democrats pressured the president to take an action that could hurt his party.
President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden announced a ban Tuesday on importing Russian energy products.Oliver Contreras / Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden didn't race to ban Russian oil. He was pushed into it by an unusual alliance of Republicans and climate-conscious liberals.

Of course, supporters of the embargo uniformly cite the defense of innocent Ukrainians as their top priority. But that's not the whole story.

Once divided over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Republicans have found unity in demanding an oil ban that is perceived as a hawkish response to autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin — and which will inevitably lead to higher gas prices that give them more political ammunition.

For liberals, banning Russian oil — banning any oil — is a step toward reducing global dependence on fossil fuels and the power of petro-state leaders, while higher gas prices create an incentive for consumers to buy electric vehicles.

"This is a critical moment for the climate movement," said Marcela Mulholland, political director of the liberal group Data for Progress. "Russia's invasion of Ukraine has provided a clear reminder of the need to free the global economy from oil and gas controlled by dictators like Putin."

These complementary goals brought together a strange-bedfellows coalition of lawmakers, from the political right and the political left, that began drafting legislation to ban Russian oil imports last week. They are also largely united — for similar reasons — in their opposition to seeking more oil from Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Faced with a stark choice — lead, or get rolled by Congress — Biden stepped to the front of the train Tuesday.

Calling it "Putin's price spike" and pleading with oil companies not to exploit scarcity for outsized profit, Biden acknowledged that the new sanctions will increase the price of gas.

“With this action, it’s going to go up further,” he said, adding that he will “do everything I can” to limit the pain at the pump. That includes releasing more American oil and pushing U.S. allies to reduce their dependence on Russian oil.

The ban covers new purchases of oil and liquefied natural gas from Russia, and it prohibits U.S. companies from investing in Russian energy, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

For several days, the White House had declined to say whether Biden would sign an embargo bill from Congress — much less impose his own ban unilaterally. It's not that Biden is reluctant to squeeze Putin economically; rounds of sanctions have shown his commitment to that form of pressure. But his hesitation revealed a deep ambivalence about a move that will harm consumers and could cost his party politically.

“I don’t think taking an action that they understood would drive oil prices higher was on their to-do list,” David Kieve, a former Biden climate adviser, said of the White House. But it was “the right thing to do because of how egregious Putin’s actions in Ukraine are."

It's hard to find a pollster who thinks that rising gas prices are good for an incumbent president or the members of his party in tough political races. Democrats believe — or at least hope — that voters will give them room in the fight against Putin.

“People understand this is the price we’re going to have to pay to help protect Ukraine and put an end to this conflict,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.

But some Republicans can hardly hide their glee over surging oil costs.

Former President Donald Trump, who has performed a clumsy pirouette on Russia in recent weeks, released a statement focused on pain at the pump before Biden's announcement: “BREAKING NEWS: HIGHEST GAS PRICES IN HISTORY! DO YOU MISS ME YET?”

Still, many Republicans applauded Biden's move, even as they criticized him for actions he has not taken.

“Good first step Mr. President, now let’s unleash American Energy instead of turning to [Venezuelan] Dictator Nicolás Maduro or the Mullahs in Iran,” former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted with an American flag emoji.

There's no question Republicans and climate Democrats remain divided over where Americans should get their energy. But they are united, at least for the moment, on where it shouldn't come from — so united that Biden had no choice but to join them.

CORRECTION (March 14, 2022, 12:00 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the political director of the liberal group Data for Progress. She is Marcela Mulholland, not Marcella.