June 4, 2023
President Joe Biden took aim at his two favorite targets as he launched his campaign for a federal gas and diesel fuel tax holiday at the White House: Russian President Vladimir Putin and congressional Republicans.

President Joe Biden took aim at his two favorite targets as he launched his campaign for a federal gas and diesel fuel tax holiday at the White House: Russian President Vladimir Putin and congressional Republicans.

“So, for all those Republicans in Congress criticizing me today for high gas prices in America, are you now saying we were wrong to support Ukraine? Are you saying we were wrong to stand up to Putin?” Biden asked from the South Court Auditorium. “Are you saying that we would rather have lower gas prices in America and Putin’s iron fist in Europe? I don’t believe that.”

Biden is clearly sensitive to the idea that he is responsible for inflation — and $5 per gallon of gasoline in particular. He has tried to rebuff Republican criticism of his fiscal and energy policies while stating that the Russians are pummeling Americans’ wallets as surely as Ukraine. The White House billed Biden’s gas tax holiday remarks as an event on “high gas prices and Putin’s price hike,” by now a familiar phrase.

Still, Biden’s formulation was odd. First, Biden will likely need at least some Republican support for the 90-day suspension of the gas tax. Congressional Democrats did not appear enthusiastic about the idea out of the gate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) both issued lukewarm statements. Democrats pointedly excluded the proposal from their own gas prices bill last month. “I’ve not been a proponent of the gas tax,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told Politico the night before Biden spoke. “I just don’t know that it gives much relief.”

Before Biden connected criticism of his policies to appeasing Putin on Ukraine, he made the following statement: “We had near-unanimous support in the Congress, Democrats, Republicans, and independents, for supporting Ukraine, knowing full well the cost.” This included the Republican leaders in both houses, some of whom had pressed Biden to deter Putin sooner.

“It’s in America’s interest to do this. This is not a charity we’re involved in here. It’s in our interests to help Ukrainians just like it’s in the interest of NATO countries. So this is not some handout,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters after his visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, a city where Biden still has not been.

As for the subset of congressional Republicans who have begun questioning the scope of U.S. support for Ukraine, including voting against the $40 billion aid legislation that Congress passed and the president signed, Biden appears to be making the argument for them: The spending and sanctions are coming at the public’s expense.

“Joe Biden and even some who have taken this stage say defending freedom in Ukraine has costs for America,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. “Why should Americans have to pay the costs for freedom elsewhere when our own leaders won’t stand up for our freedom here?”

“While I’m solidly opposed to the murderous war Putin is waging on Ukraine, how is banning Russian oil (10% of our imports) helping reduce gas prices hurting Americans?” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) asked on Twitter in March. “Biden refuses to allow more drilling here, how will we replace it? Iran? Venezuela? This doesn’t help us.”

Speaking on Fox News last month, Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) summed up the position of “America First” conservatives on Ukraine as follows: “We don’t want to see them fail, but we have problems right here at home.”

Biden rejects complaints about his oil production record, which he compares favorably not only to former President Donald Trump but also to his old boss, former President Barack Obama. “I know my Republican friends claim we’re not producing enough oil and I’m limiting oil production,” he said. “Quite frankly, that’s nonsense.”

But the president doesn’t deny there are costs associated with the current path. “Siding with Ukraine during the most serious aggression in Europe since World War II, defending freedom, defending democracy, was not going to go without cost for the American people and the rest of the free world,” Biden said.

Biden appeals to the wartime patriotism of the third villain in his story about high prices at the pump: oil companies. “This is a time of war, global peril, Ukraine,” he said.

“I’m doing my part,” Biden declared. “I want the Congress, the states, and the industry to do their part as well.”

The buck stops here — once the price per gallon of gas drops by a few bucks.

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