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Biden says Americans will feel the pain of high gas prices. Will they be OK paying more to support Ukraine?

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WASHINGTON – As he has done many times since Russia invaded Ukraine, President Joe Biden on Tuesday said Americans will feel the pain of higher gas prices.

In announcing a ban on Russian oil, coal and natural gas imports, he warned that "defending freedom is going to cost us as well" – a nod to the fact the ban could propel record-setting fuel prices even higher.

"It's going to go up," Biden told reporters hours later from a tarmac in Fort Worth, Texas, gesturing upward with his left thumb. "We can't do much now. Russia's responsible."

With his latest round of sanctions targeting Russia's energy sector, Biden is betting that Americans will be willing to stomach higher gas prices as a sacrifice to support Ukraine. Polls show most Americans may be on board with him, but observers acknowledge the ask has its challenges, and Biden's opponents are working to pin rising gas prices on the president.

"It's a hard political sell," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "But there's a way to do it, and it's to really connect these small sacrifices to end a real security threat for the country, for Europe. That's the challenge of what he has to do. It's about patriotism at the pump."

More: 'People, children are under the wreckage': In latest civilian attack, Russia strikes maternity hospital

The White House set out to blame Russia for what Americans will see at the gas pump, labeling it "Putin's spike," in a bid to tie the gas prices to Russian President Vladimir Putin's brutal war on Ukraine, not the president's policies at home.

Whether Americans buy that rationale could make or break the president's second year in office as Democrats work to maintain control of Congress in November's midterm elections.

Gas prices remained high even before Putin's invasion as a result of supply and demand issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans have hammered Biden for months about inflation that has reached a 40-year high, seizing on perhaps the president's biggest vulnerability in his approval ratings.

Biden promised to 'level' with people about costs at home

Gas prices on Tuesday soared to the most expensive in U.S. history, not accounting for inflation, reaching a national average of $4.17 a gallon. That milestone followed days of dramatically increasing gas prices in the wake of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Gas prices increased 50 cents in just the past week, according to AAA. Economists forecast the price could spike to $4.50 a gallon and climb into the summer after Biden's move to sanction Russia's energy sector.

More: Biden announces ban on all Russian energy imports over Ukraine invasion; experts expect gas price spike

The White House, which had resisted a Russian oil ban until recent days, faced a dilemma: growing bipartisan calls in Congress for him to punish Russia where it hurts most versus the reality that gas prices are expected to rise further under a ban. A bill backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ban Russian oil imports gained momentum before Biden's decision.

"Defending freedom is going to cost us," President Joe Biden warned Americans after he announced a ban on imports of Russian oil and energy products.
"Defending freedom is going to cost us," President Joe Biden warned Americans after he announced a ban on imports of Russian oil and energy products.

For weeks, the president promised to "level with the American people" about the toll the crisis in Ukraine could have on U.S. consumers, vowing that his administration is taking steps to ease the pain. On Tuesday, Biden acknowledged gas prices will increase further as a result of the Russian oil ban but said Americans have made it clear "we will not be part of subsidizing Putin's war."

"The decision today is not without cost here at home. Putin's war is already hurting American families at the gas pump," Biden said, adding that the price of gas has shot up 75 cents in the U.S. since Putin began his military buildup at Ukraine's border. "And with this action, it's going to go up further. I'm going to do everything I can to minimize Putin's price hike here at home."

More: Gas prices are up. What can Biden do to lower costs at the pump amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

Who will Americans blame for higher gas prices?

A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday – and taken before Biden's announcement – found an overwhelming majority of Americans, 71%-22%, support a ban on Russian oil even if it meant higher gasoline prices in the United States. A poll from YouGov found 3 out of every 5 U.S. adults support the decision, compared with just 17% who don't.

"Americans are all in on this," said Tim Malloy, polling analyst for Quinnipiac. "At the moment – we haven't seen the gas prices kick in at its worst – it appears Americans are turning to the administration and accepting what they're doing."

Yet polling for months has found Americans believe Biden is not doing enough to curb inflation. Amy Walter, publisher and editor-and-chief with the Cook Political Report, predicted "there's sure to be a limit to this altruism" on gas prices.

"Will Americans feel as positive (and generous) if Russia succeeds in overthrowing the Zelenskyy government? Or, if this war drags on for weeks on end," Walter wrote in an analysis. "Moreover, short-term pain at the pump might be easier to overcome than if Americans weren’t already dealing with the sky-high cost of living."

Tom Seng, director of the University of Tulsa's School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce, said how Americans respond to rising gas prices will largely fall along party lines, with Republicans blaming Biden and Democrats tying the increase to the conflict overseas.

Strong supporters of former President Donald Trump Americans will be less forgiving about the gas price hikes, he said, while others who view the war in Ukraine as a humanitarian crisis are more likely to say, "I'm not enjoying this, but I understand why it's $4 or potentially even moving higher."

Biden's allies are betting on the latter. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believes Americans are ready to pay a price to defend Western values.

"If we are not willing to stand up and take some hurt along the way and sacrifice along the way, then I don't think we do credit to this incredible struggle," Warner said in an interview on MSNBC. "And I think the American people will rise to the occasion."

Biden's ban coincided with the United Kingdom also banning Russian oil imports, while other countries more reliant on Russian oil like Germany have resisted. As recently as last Thursday, the White House said a ban on Russian oil was against the "strategic interest" of the U.S. The Biden administration changed its position amid mounting pressure from Congress and daily images of the atrocities in Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to predict how much gas prices will spike but said it won't be "long-term." She said the White House won't urge Americans to cut back their energy use by staying at home.

Where the fight over gas prices goes from here

The U.S. imports about 700,000 barrels of oil from Russia a year, accounting for just 3% of all U.S. crude oil imports and 1% of the total crude oil produced by American refineries. Conversely, European countries import about 4.5 million barrels of Russian oil a day, supplying about 30% of Europe's oil and 40% of its natural gas

"I think we’re headed to $4.50” a gallon, said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, which monitors fuel supply and prices. "By the summer driving season, by the Memorial Day weekend, it’s really going to pinch Americans who are living check to check."

Prices at gas stations such as this one in Brooklyn, N.Y., have spiked after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Prices at gas stations such as this one in Brooklyn, N.Y., have spiked after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Republicans pushed back Wednesday at Biden for blaming gas price increases on Russia. “These aren’t Putin prices," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. "They’re President Biden prices.”

But some observers see ways Biden can salvage a political win from the crisis.

By ratcheting up U.S. sanctions on Russia, said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Biden can "reclaim some legitimacy and strength" that he lost when his Build Back Better domestic agenda stalled in Congress this winter. He said Biden's ban on Russian oil also gives the president a way to explain rising gas prices that predated the Ukraine crisis.

"He can say, yes, they went up because we were fighting an authoritarian threat and a humanitarian crisis. And that becomes the signature reason, not inflation per se," Howell said. "It gives a reason and purpose behind the price increases that previously didn't exist."

More: Gas prices are soaring – here's what you can do to keep your costs down

Biden's move came after Republicans lawmakers – and increasingly more Democrats – pressed Biden to cut off Russian oil. as Putin ramped up his brutal assault on Ukraine. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskky urged senators to ban Russian oil during a video call with U.S. senators over the weekend.

And yet Republican members of Congress aren't expected to ease off Biden for rising gas prices.

"Even though Republicans urged him to take this action, they will not hesitate to criticize him when, inevitably, gas prices will rise, and it will exacerbate the issue with inflation," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "They will try to take advantage of this politically."

Republicans have demanded Biden expand U.S. production of oil to bring down rising gas costs, a call that will likely grow louder if gas prices continue to rise.

"Part 1 of the plan is in place: We're not buying oil from Russia," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a video posted on Twitter after Biden announced the oil ban. "Now we have to do Part 2, which is we should replace it with American oil."

More: Are oil and gas companies price gouging consumers at the pump?

The White House has pushed back at that argument, saying U.S. oil and gas companies are sitting on 9,000 unused permits to drill. Only 10% of drilling in the U.S. occurs on public land, according to the White House, compared to 90% on private land.

Biden said it's "simply not true" his policies have held back oil production in the U.S. He also called the crisis in Ukraine a "stark reminder" of the need for the U.S. to become energy independent – not by more drilling but by transitioning to clean energy.

Cohen, from the University of Akron, said Biden risks "exacerbating an already tough inflation outlook" by banning Russian oil imports but argued sometimes a president must make a decision based on what's right, regardless of the political consequences.

"At least in the short term, Americans are willing to put up with higher gas prices if it means doing the right thing when it comes to the war in Ukraine."

But Thomas O’Guinn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Business who specializes in political branding, said it isn’t enough for Biden to simply blame the price increases on Putin; he must connect it to the conflict in Ukraine in a way that resonates.

“If you're going to make this stick, you're going to have to say it a lot and you're going to have to remind people that they’re paying more at the pump in order to save women, children and freedom in Ukraine,” he said. “And every time you pay more, you’re hurting Putin."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says gas prices are going up: Will people pay more for Ukraine?