The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the Biden team’s fixation on gas prices

Many Biden aides say the president’s popularity is closely tied to a single economic number. They could be right.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain at a Cabinet meeting in the White House on July 20, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s top aide wakes up almost every morning at around 3:30 a.m. in his suburban Maryland home, rolls over in bed and pulls out his iPhone to check a number critical to the fate of the presidency.

The information sought by Biden’s chief of staff is not covert intelligence from a foreign government nor a top-secret national security assessment, but a publicly available tracker on AAA.com — the average national gas price, which updates in the early morning.

A few hours later, Ron Klain gathers anecdotal information about gas prices on his drive to the White House, checking the listed price at each of the nine gas stations he passes on his morning commute.

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Before the end of his day, as he guides the president’s agenda, Klain often continues to check in on gas prices with a dedication that has impressed some of his colleagues. If prices are trending downward, Klain amplifies them in news releases, notes to colleagues and, most frequently, tweets. He has tweeted close to 300 times about gas prices since July alone, including retweets, sometimes doing so in the morning, afternoon and again the same night.

“I know how important it is to bring down gas prices,” Klain said in an interview.

Klain’s fixation on gas prices reflects a wider sense inside the Biden administration that the president’s popularity is, to a remarkable degree, tied up in that single indicator — one that many economists regard as not nearly as important as the attention it gets. With some incredulity, White House economic officials have watched for months as the president’s approval rating moves in almost exact relation to the average national gas price.

President Biden on Oct. 31 bemoaned the profits of oil and gas companies ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and suggested exploring a new tax on those profits. (Video: The Washington Post)

This focus has in part driven the White House to sacrifice other major objectives in the search for lower fuel costs — leading Biden to seek a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia despite its human rights record, for instance, and to relax some environmental rules. The White House has also released more than 165 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the largest in the history of the reserve, amid concerns from some analysts that its depletion could prove dangerous ahead of winter. And the president has repeatedly browbeaten oil companies for purportedly keeping prices artificially high, contrary to his usual instincts as a business-friendly Democrat.

The White House in a statement to the Post denied that any other goals had been compromised.

“The claim that our work to lower gas prices has come at the expense of other priorities is flatly wrong," the statement said. "In the time the President has been doing everything he can to lower prices at the pump, he has also done more than any prior president to tackle the climate crisis — securing the largest investment ever in clean energy and climate resilience, creating thousands of clean energy manufacturing jobs, leading global efforts to combat climate change, and so much more.”

With the midterms a week away, the months-long push is about to be put to the test. Polls suggest it has done little to chip away at the Republicans’ strong advantage on economic issues, and analysts from both parties say the GOP is likely to make big gains next week.

But Democrats see some reason for hope.

Biden’s approval rating cratered in June as gas prices soared, recovered in July and August when gas prices plummeted, and then fell again when gas prices ticked upward in late September. Now a fourth shift may be underway — again in Democrats’ favor, with prices again beginning to dip in the last two weeks of the campaign. Some in the administration are optimistic or at least hopeful that it will translate into one final polling bump at the right time.

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Nobody in the White House has been more focused on lowering gas prices than Klain, according to interviews with half a dozen senior aides, Democratic lawmakers and others familiar with the chief of staff’s thinking. It’s a reflection of the president’s own attention to the issue.

Biden has tasked Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, and top White House aide Amos Hochstein with leading the administration’s day-to-day work on energy policy. This White House economic team holds multiple staff-level meetings every week and regularly updates senior officials on data from AAA and GasBuddy, which also tracks gas prices, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal deliberations.

“Ron Klain is the most aggressive of anyone in the administration in making sure we’re lowering gas prices and taking action against the Saudis and doing everything on the table to bring relief,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who introduced a bill last week temporarily banning the export of gasoline produced by the United States. “He understands that’s the priority for many Americans, and of all the voices in the administration, he’s been the most aggressive and assertive.”

Economists say there is something puzzling, if not irrational, in the political power of gas prices. Gas typically amounts to just 4 percent of the average family’s budget, with food and housing typically representing larger shares of how Americans spend their money.

Gas appears to have a disproportionate electoral impact in part because of its visual prominence and the frequency with which consumers must buy it. The cost of housing, medicine and even groceries can be relatively opaque, while the price of gasoline is emblazoned on large public signs in every part of the country.

Political scientists have found that gas prices have had a direct effect on presidential approval ratings for decades, independent of other inflationary trends, according to Matt Grossmann, a Michigan State political scientist. Presidential approval ratings are in turn connected to how voters decide which party to back in Congress.

“Every focus group you do, it’s the number one thing volunteered,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Biden. “People get reminded of the price of gas every two hours. They just really watch that price and feel that it’s an overall indicator of which way things are going.”

Gas prices have at points appeared to represent a major threat to Biden’s presidency. From their pandemic-depressed level of around $2.39 when Biden took office in January 2021, prices shot up as the economy recovered and demand surged from factories and commuters. In November 2021, before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden announced the release of the first 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to offset the increases.

Inside the White House, gas prices were not initially seen as the most pressing political concern. Deese took the lead on the administration’s response, with White House aides Vivek Viswanathan and David Kamen tasked with playing key coordinate roles.

Klain became increasingly involved as the political importance of gas prices became evident.

“Ron was not as focused on it in the early going; in the beginning, it was really Brian’s,” one person familiar with the internal dynamics said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect private dynamics. “But once it became obviously a meaningful political issue, then it became a much higher priority.” The person added: “When Ron is focused on something, that means it’s a focus for the president.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February introduced even more instability to the market, and the average gallon of gas even eclipsed $5 at one point in June. Biden’s popularity took a beating in the polls, often on a slight delay from changes in gas prices.

Then things began breaking the White House’s way. Pointing to the extraordinary circumstances posed by Russia’s invasion, Biden announced the largest-ever drawdown of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the spring: an additional 180 million barrels.

More important, Russia did not reduce oil exports as many analysts feared at the war’s outset. That kept global supply stable while the United States was pumping more from its reserves into world markets.

At the White House, Klain hosted Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, ahead of hurricane season to discuss how the company’s data could help the administration limit the impact of fuel disruptions on Americans, De Haan confirmed to The Washington Post.

When BP had to shut units at an Ohio refinery, White House and Energy Department officials held multiple calls per day with the company to offer assistance and account for any damage, according to one person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics.

Average prices fell below $3.70 in September — or by roughly one-quarter from the summer — and Biden’s approval rating rose to 43 percent. Democrats also moved into the lead on the generic ballot for the midterm elections for the first time since October 2021, according to FiveThirtyEight.

On Twitter, Klain celebrated as the United States posted a record streak in falling gas prices for 97 consecutive days, after highlighting many of the days along the way.

Still, some political analysts say the focus on gas prices may be overstated, given that overall inflation has also closely tracked with Biden’s approval ratings.

Republicans say that despite the administration’s talk of lowering gas prices, it has not done enough to expand drilling in the United States because of environmental concerns. Other analysts have criticized the release of the petroleum reserve as politically motivated, arguing its depletion now could leave the United States vulnerable after the midterms should prices spike again in the winter, when Europe imposes it embargo on Russian oil exports.

Many analysts supported the Biden administration’s decision to release the reserves after the Ukraine invasion but said that action should have been suspended once it became clear Russian supply did not evaporate as feared.

“If it was me, I would have kept my powder dry because we’re going to lose Russia this winter,” said Bob McNally, who served as an energy official in the George W. Bush administration. “The responsible thing to do would have been to suspend sales and not drawn down emergency reserves.”

Overall, analysts say a president has limited influence over gas prices, and it is clear that Biden’s efforts have not kept costs consistently low. In September, gas prices rose as the OPEC Plus nations announced they would cut back oil production in a rebuke to the administration, and Biden’s approval ratings dipped yet again in subsequent weeks.

On Monday, Biden floated the possibility of a tax on energy giants’ profits if they refused to expand production, castigating firms for not doing enough to lower prices. It was only Biden’s latest recognition of gas prices’ political significance.

On Tuesday morning, Klain again tweeted about gas prices falling nationally and dropping below $3.55 in 20 states. He tweeted again about falling gas prices less than two hours later.

“White House officials will sometimes say, ‘Well, the only thing that matters in the entire American economy is gas prices,’ ” said one person in communication with senior White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations with Biden’s economic aides. “And they may not be wrong, which is wild.”

Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.

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