Biden Urges Americans to Blame Rising Prices on Putin. Many Do, for Now.
WASHINGTON — The price of gasoline has risen every day since Russia invaded Ukraine. Record-high inflation in the United States is causing sticker shock. And now, President Biden is blaming the pinch on Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
“There will be costs at home as we impose crippling sanctions in response to Putin’s unprovoked war,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on Thursday.
The president is betting that Americans are willing to endure the financial pain that comes from waging an economic war with Russia. But Thursday’s news that inflation has hit a 40-year high is another blunt reminder of just how much he is asking voters to sacrifice in an election year.
With the midterm elections eight months away, the urgent political question for Mr. Biden is whether the American people are prepared to go along with blaming the Russians, and not him, for rising costs. Experts have said that prices have risen over the past year primarily because strong demand, stoked in part by government relief spending, outstripped pandemic-disrupted supply. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just beginning to compound the problem.
“It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s not one that we really have a choice about making,” Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist, said about imposing financial penalties on Russia. “There’s broad support for standing up to Putin and putting these sanctions in place, including those that will increase the cost of gas.”
Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have been pulled down for months by frustration among many Americans about inflation and the pandemic. But recent surveys of voter attitudes suggest that many Democrats and Republicans support the administration’s sanctions on Russia, even if the penalties are bad for their pocketbooks.
In an Economist/YouGov poll released this week, 66 percent of Americans said they approved of sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its invasion. In a Wall Street Journal survey, 79 percent of voters supported a ban on Russian oil even if it meant that energy prices would rise as a result.
Those findings are good news for Mr. Biden, who has been the subject of Republican attacks for failing to keep inflation in check. Republicans have blamed him for the rise in gas prices even as they supported his decision to impose a ban on Russian oil.
Officials familiar with his decision said Mr. Biden had struggled for days over whether to cut off Russian oil amid fears of accelerating the already rapid rise in the price of gasoline.
Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, accused the Biden administration on Thursday of refusing to take responsibility for rising costs.
“Prices continue to skyrocket under Biden and Democrats’ reckless policies,” Ms. McDaniel said in a statement. “Biden’s attempt to deflect blame is an insult to every American and small-business owner struggling to afford the cost of everyday goods.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday that there was “no question that inflation may be higher for the next few months than it would have been” without the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that the administration’s focus would be to mitigate the long-term effects of rising costs.
Democratic strategists pointed out that much of the criticism of Mr. Biden from Republicans is that he has not done even more to confront Russia. The president has repeatedly said he is unwilling to send American troops into Ukraine, and the United States declined this week to take fighter jets from Poland and station them at an American air base for eventual use in Ukraine.
Each decision Mr. Biden is making, the strategists from his party argue, is rooted in strategic decision making, not political calculation.
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“Being in the situation he’s in carries a kind of political freedom,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “Virtually every indicator is working against him relative to these midterm elections, and many of them are beyond anyone’s control. The best service that he can perform for himself, for Democrats, is to be intrepid and as strong and as honest as he can be about the situation we’re in.”
Biden administration officials have tried to emphasize economic gains, including a streak of strong job growth that persisted even during the latest wave of coronavirus cases. Just last week, Mr. Biden used his State of the Union address to try to refocus the nation on how far the economy has come since the recession caused by the pandemic, and he called fighting inflation his “top priority.”
The Labor Department reported last week that American employers had added 678,000 jobs in February and that the unemployment rate had fallen to 3.8 percent, its lowest level since the start of the pandemic. Still, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen acknowledged on Thursday that despite economic progress in the United States, inflation continued to be a challenge.
“I don’t want to say that inflation is not a problem,” Ms. Yellen said at an event held by The Washington Post. “Inflation is a problem.”
Ms. Yellen noted that Russia’s war in Ukraine was driving up oil prices and causing gasoline prices in the United States to rise sharply. She said the Biden administration was working to insulate American consumers from the impact of the sanctions, but she did not elaborate on any new measures to lower gas prices.
Ms. Yellen pointed to Biden administration policies to reduce the cost of child care and elder care as longer-term remedies for rising prices. She said that in the near term, it would be the responsibility of the Federal Reserve to combat inflation.
“Inflation is first and foremost the job of the Federal Reserve,” Ms. Yellen said. “We have to look at the Federal Reserve to take steps to bring down inflation and I have confidence the Fed will take the actions that are needed.”
Alan Rappeport and Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.