By Gregory Korte
Going into the Independence Day weekend, when road trips are expected to near a record, the nationwide average was $3.12 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. That’s 44% higher than a year ago, when oil prices were in a free fall because of a glut of supply and pandemic-constrained demand.
That kind of increase would have been cause for alarm at the White House in recent decades, when voters often took out their frustrations over energy costs on the sitting president. A 2016 study of presidential approval ratings from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush found that every 10-cent rise in gas prices reduced presidential approval by 0.6 percentage points, after controlling for other factors.
Yet while Biden’s approval rating has slipped since Memorial Day, with the RealClearPolitics average reaching the lowest level of his presidency Friday, at 51.7% approving and 44.5% disapproving, that is higher than President Donald Trump enjoyed at any point in his time in office.
The changing politics of gas prices are giving Biden more leeway to pursue a clean-energy agenda favored by progressive Democrats, with the costs borne disproportionately by Republicans.
During his tenure, the president has canceled a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian crude to U.S. refineries and suspended drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also has moved to prohibit new oil and gas projects on federal land and urged the phasing out of fossil fuels entirely.
None of those policies have an immediate effect on gas prices which are more broadly influenced by fluctuations in the global oil market, including an ongoing diplomatic standoff within OPEC+ allies that could send prices up.
In fact, some of Biden’s policies, like pushing for electric transportation, may actually reduce demand and lower prices over time. But Republicans argue his environmental agenda will drive up the cost of energy overall.
“As we move into this weekend, after just six months of the Biden administration, we have the highest gas prices in seven years, as many wanted to hit the road,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday. “I think the American people want more. They want inflation under control and they want a gas price they can afford as well.”
Representative Randy Feenstra, a Republican from western Iowa, took to the floor of the House this week to declare Biden’s policies an “attack of rural America and rural Iowa.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday the president was committed to making sure gasoline remains affordable for Americans amid rising oil prices. She said that is why he is opposed to increased taxes on fuel or mileage “because he felt that would fall on the backs of Americans who are returning to their workplaces who are driving their kids to school.”
The pain of higher gas prices is often experienced differently by Democrats and Republicans because of geography, use patterns and even perception.
Republicans worry more about steeper prices than Democrats, expecting a 33-cent hike per gallon over the next year, according to the most recent University of Michigan survey of consumers. That’s five times more than the increase expected by Democrats.
Economic expectations are increasingly driven by partisanship as the nation becomes more polarized. They also reflect a more pessimistic view of an administration run by the opposing party. Republicans are more optimistic about an economy during Republican administration and vice-versa, said the Michigan survey director, Richard Curtin.
A Fox News poll last month of registered voters found 68% said rising gas prices were a hardship for their families — although only 29% said it was a serious hardship. Republican women and parents were most likely to say it was a hardship.
And it’s not all perception. Many Republicans likely do spend more on gas than Democrats.
While gasoline is often cheaper by the gallon in Republican-leaning states in the South than in Democratic strongholds like California, New Jersey and New York, households in rural areas have longer commutes than urban and suburban households. Men drive farther than women, and middle-aged households also drive more as they juggle work and family.
All those demographics tend to lean Republican.
Republicans also tend to drive bigger, less fuel-efficient cars. According to a survey of new vehicle purchases by market research firm Strategic Vision, the all-electric Tesla Model 3 skews more progressive than any other vehicle model. The model that skews most conservative is the Ford F-250/350 pickups.
Gas prices have long been viewed as a harbinger of broader inflation, and the nearly $2 trillion in coronavirus pandemic relief spending Biden has signed into law has exacerbated those fears.
But Curtin said those assumptions are steeped in the economics of the 1970s, when energy costs were a much higher percentage of the economy, cars were less fuel-efficient and the U.S. relied more on foreign oil.
Consumers also now accept gas prices as more variable, Curtin said. The cost invariably rises in the summer when people drive more and refineries switch to summer-blend fuels that reduce smog.
And the pandemic has only increased that volatility.
“For people who understand it as a supply and demand issue, they don’t see the president as responsible for the rise,” said Laurel Harbridge-Yong of Northwestern University, the primary author of the 2016 study on gas prices and presidential approval. “It’s not like the president can put his finger on the button and make gas prices go up or down.”
For the prices to be a liability for Biden, Republicans must do a better job connecting them to his policies, said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist who specializes in public opinion on pocketbook issues.
“It’s more than just what is the raw cost of gasoline? Has he done things policy-wise that has made the cost go up, not because of the ebb and flow of gas prices?” he said. “If people decide that’s the connection they’re going to make, that’s the problem.”
But if gasoline prices remain high into the fall, voters could start to hold Biden responsible.
“Right now this is a starting point where people are assessing what’s going on with gas prices,” Winston said. “I don’t know that there’s a magic number per se, but it’s probably closer to $4 a gallon.”