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Behind the White House's messaging shift on gas prices

As Republicans continue to lay the blame on Biden’s energy policies, the president seeks to hold Putin responsible for the pain many Americans feel at the pump.
President Joe Biden announces a ban on Russian oil imports Tuesday at the White House, toughening the toll on Russia's economy in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.
President Joe Biden announces a ban on Russian oil imports Tuesday at the White House, toughening the toll on Russia's economy in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.Oliver Contreras / Sipa via AP

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden called the rising cost of gas in the U.S. "Putin’s price hike" Tuesday — laying the blame for pain at the pump squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin — it wasn't a casual aside. And his warning to oil and gas companies against price gouging was no ad lib.

His comments while announcing a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports in response to Putin’s assault on Ukraine — which he repeated hours later as he arrived for a veterans event in to Fort Worth, Texas — were part of a deliberate shift by the White House in the president’s messaging strategy about gas prices ahead of the midterm elections, people familiar with the internal deliberations said.

The shifting strategy around how Biden addresses gas prices — going beyond his assurances that he understands the economic pain points and is working to address soaring prices — had been under discussion in the White House for days.

The new message, which has been tested in Democratic polling, is threefold: empathize with the economic strain high fuel prices are putting on Americans, which Biden already has been doing; send a strong warning to oil and gas companies that might seek to exploit the crisis; and blame Putin.

“It’s important to remind people if they’re going to be paying higher prices at the pump, why that is and who’s behind it,” a White House official said.

The belief in the White House is that Americans are willing to pay more at the pump to punish Putin economically, and Biden said Tuesday he believes the country is behind his decision to ban Russian oil. But what officials don’t know is how tolerant the American people will be of steady price increases — essentially, how much might be too much before public support for economic measures against Russia wanes.

The tipping point “is very hard to predict,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who has recently gathered data on Americans’ views of gas prices for the Democratic National Committee and other Democrats. Her work indicated that empathy, blaming Putin and taking on suggestions of price gouging resonate with voters.

Lake, who consulted with Biden’s presidential campaign, said that before Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, Americans didn’t believe there was a good reason gas prices were going up and down. They weren’t sure whom to blame, although many expressed frustration with oil and gas companies for potential price gouging. As prices soared late last year, Biden asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether companies were engaging in anti-consumer behavior. 

But now, she said, “there’s an explanation, and there’s a villain now in Putin.”

Republicans have sought to blame Biden, saying his policies have pushed inflation and gas prices at levels not seen in decades.

But Biden is now seizing on Putin as the cause. “Putin’s war is already hurting American families at the gas pump,” he said Tuesday.

A second White House official said: "The president placed the blame where it belongs. The aim of his remarks today was to announce this new tough measure and to explain the impact it will have on gas prices here and why that is.”

The White House said "a range of options are on the table" to try to mitigate the side effects of the punitive measures, including higher gas prices, but it did not announce any new specifics Tuesday. 

Officials said they weren’t sure what steps Biden would take on price gouging at the gas pump. For now, they said, he is focused on using the bully pulpit to warn against it. 

"To the oil and gas companies and to the financial firms that back them: We understand Putin's war against the people of Ukraine is causing prices to rise," Biden said Tuesday. "But — it’s no excuse to exercise excessive price increases or padding profits or any kind of effort to exploit the situation or American consumers."

Another official said the administration continues to discuss the issue with Congress and U.S. allies. The administration recently announced plans to release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

For now, White House officials say polling shows Americans are responding well to Biden’s handling of Russia and Ukraine. And they plan to continue having him emphasize that he understands the impact the conflict is having on Americans economically while positioning him in events where he is able to connect more personally with those affected. 

“He’s been clear with us that if he’s not connecting with what people are feeling and living in their everyday lives, they’re not going to hear anything else he has to say,” the second White House official said.