The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans aren’t really buying into the ‘Putin price hike’

On March 31, President Biden authorized the release of 1 million oil barrels per day over the next six months. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
5 min

Early this month, growing calls for a ban on Russian oil served the Biden administration with both a dilemma and, arguably, an opportunity. On the one hand, banning an oil source amid already-rising gas prices was far from ideal; on the other, Americans who had balked at paying more at the pump in the name of sanctioning Russia suddenly rallied to the cause. They’d pay more, they said, to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden appeared to not only have license to take that step — he could also use it to reinforce the narrative that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bore blame for the ugly crooked numbers people were seeing at the pump. The White House even debuted a new talking point: the “Putin price hike.”

The reality, though, was never going to be so neat. Inflation and gas prices were already bad, and it’s a difficult task to pin their rise on a war that isn’t front-and-center for most Americans.

Evidence now suggests the narrative is coming up well short. Domestic pricing concerns are far outpacing Ukraine on Americans’ list of priorities, and Biden’s poll numbers on his handling of the economy continue to hit new lows. Whatever stomach Americans had for higher prices to support the war in Ukraine, it doesn’t appear particularly strong.

The result: The administration has now taken some extraordinary measures to stem the tide, including a massive release from the strategic reserves and a “use it or lose it” approach to unused permits for drilling on federal land. Biden also had some choice words Thursday for oil companies he accused of putting profits before production.

The impetus is pretty clear.

A poll released Thursday from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 55 percent of Americans say inflation and rising prices are the biggest problem right now — far more than the 18 percent who name the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even Democrats pick inflation and gas prices by a 2-to-1 margin. Another poll from Quinnipiac University on Thursday found twice as many name “inflation” (30 percent) as “Russia/Ukraine” (14 percent) as their No. 1 issue.

And a poll last week from NBC News straight-up asked people which should be Biden’s top priority: reducing inflation and improving the economy, or working to end the war in Ukraine. Americans chose the former by an overwhelming 68-29 margin.

That last one is perhaps the most telling. It’s logical that people would consider inflation to be the bigger problem in this country, given this country isn’t directly involved in the war. But it’s striking that even amid the brutality of the Russian invasion — and after Americans initially signed off on paying a little more to help out — domestic prices are still far-and-away No. 1 on people’s priority list.

And when it comes to gas prices, specifically, Putin isn’t bearing a ton of the blame.

There’s a real argument to be made that Russia’s invasion is indeed the chief factor, at least of late. As PolitiFact noted this month, the biggest recent spike in prices occurred after the invasion, and most of the increase during Biden’s tenure has taken place in the six-or-so months since Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s border began working its way into the collective consciousness. Other factors could have contributed in the meantime, but it’s a big one.

Americans don’t necessarily see it that way, though. The Quinnipiac poll shows just 24 percent say the war in Ukraine is “the most responsible for the recent rise in gas prices” — compared with 24 percent who blame oil companies and 41 percent who blame the Biden administration. (Another 5 percent blamed increasing demand from the easing of pandemic restrictions.)

If there’s a kernel of good news in there for Biden, it’s that more people blame some combination of oil companies and the war (48 percent) for gas prices than blame the administration (41 percent). The same is true for inflation, where the NBC poll showed 38 percent blamed Biden, while 28 percent blamed the pandemic, 23 percent blamed corporations and 6 percent blamed the war.

But practically speaking, the impact has been a drag on Biden. His approval rating on the economy dropped to 33 percent in the NBC News poll, and 31 percent in a poll last week from renowned pollster J. Ann Selzer for Grinnell College. Polling on Biden and the economy varies widely, but these are some of the very first quality polls to show his economic reviews hitting the low 30s — and at virtually the same time. (Quinnipiac pegged it at 34 percent.)

And that’s certainly Democrats’ biggest problem ahead of the 2022 midterms. People might have said they were willing to pay more. But when that becomes the new — and then — lasting reality, you tend to seek accountability from the things you have some measure of control over.