WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden called Tuesday's rising gas prices in the U.S. "Putin’s price hike" -- placing the blame for the pain at home's pump squarely at Russian President Vladimir Putin -- this was not a casual aside. His warning to oil and natural gas companies about price gouging was not a casual aside.
People familiar with internal discussions said that his comments, which announced a U.S. ban of Russian oil imports as a response to Putin's attack on Ukraine, and repeated shortly after he arrived in Fort Worth, Texas for a veterans event, were part of a deliberate shift in the White House's messaging strategy regarding gas prices in advance of the midterm elections.
White House discussions have been ongoing for days about the shifting strategy that Biden will use to address the gas price issue -- something beyond what the president assured Americans about his understanding of economic pain points and how he is working to reduce them.
In Democratic polling, the new message was tested and it is: Empathize with the economic strain that high fuel prices are putting upon Americans, something Biden has done; send a strong warning oil and gas companies who might be looking to exploit the crisis; and blame Putin.
One White House official stated that it was important to remind people why they are paying higher prices at gas pumps and who is responsible.
According to the White House, Americans believe that Putin is being punished economically by paying more for fuel. Biden stated Tuesday that he believes that the country was behind the decision to ban Russian oil. Officials don't know how tolerable the American people are to steady price increases. This is essentially how much will be too much before there is a decline in public support for economic sanctions against Russia.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who recently collected data about Americans' opinions on gas prices for the Democratic National Committee (and other Democrats), said that this tipping point is "very difficult to predict". Her research showed that voters respond to suggestions of price gouging, blame Putin and empathy.
Lake, who was an advisor to Biden's presidential campaign said that before Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, Americans did not believe there was any good reason why gas prices were rising and falling. Although they weren't certain who was to blame, many expressed dismay at the potential price gouging by oil and gas companies. Biden asked for the Federal Trade Commission's investigation into anti-consumer behavior.
She said that there was an explanation and that Putin is a villain.
Republicans are trying to blame Biden for inflating gas prices and causing inflation at levels that have not been seen in decades.
Biden now sees Putin as the problem. He stated Tuesday that Putin's war was already causing pain to American families at the gas pumps.
A second White House official stated that "the president put the blame where it belongs" "His remarks today were intended to announce this tough new measure and explain its impact on gas prices and why it is."
Although the White House stated that "a variety of options are available" to reduce the negative effects of punitive actions taken by the U.S. against Putin, which include higher gas prices for Americans, it didn't announce any specifics Tuesday.
Officials said that they were not sure of the steps Biden would take to stop price gouging at gas pumps. They said that for now, Biden is focusing on using the bully pulpit as a way to warn companies about price gouging.
Biden stated Tuesday that he understood the reasons why Putin's war on the Ukrainian people is driving up prices. "But, it's not an excuse to increase prices or to profit from the situation. It's also not an excuse to exploit American consumers."
Another stated that the administration is continuing to discuss the issue in Congress with its allies and the U.S. Recently, the administration announced that it would release 30 million barrels from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
White House officials claim that polling indicates that Americans respond well to Biden’s handling of Russia, Ukraine. They plan to have him continue to emphasize that he understands how it affects Americans economically and to place him in events where he can connect with the affected more personally.
The second White House official stated that "he's been very clear with us that if they don't feel connected with people's everyday lives and feelings, then they won't listen to anything else he has"