WASHINGTON — Inflation rocketed to another four-decade high in March, the government reported Tuesday, worsening a major political problem for President Biden and the Democrats heading into the midterm elections.
But now they’ve developed a new message to counter the impact of soaring consumer prices: It’s Vladimir Putin’s fault.
The White House has all but trademarked the phrase “Putin price hike” in recent weeks, blaming the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine for a spike in gasoline prices that turbocharged the already sizzling US inflation rate. The move is an attempt to overcome a political liability and hold onto the Democrats’ slim congressional majorities in the face of relentless criticism from Republicans of what they’ve branded “Bidenflation.”
“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices and food prices all over the world,” Biden declared in a speech in Menlo, Iowa, on Tuesday.
The rebranding effort has the benefit of being grounded in truth.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent global oil prices soaring and was a major factor in the sharp rise in the consumer price index, which increased in March at an annual rate of 8.5 percent. An ABC News/Ipsos Poll released over the weekend showed the administration’s message already might be resonating. More respondents — 71 percent — said they blamed Putin for the recent gas price increases than oil companies, at 68 percent, and Biden at 51 percent.
But staving off the blame for the latest inflation surge could be an uphill battle for Biden as consumers continue to face higher prices at the gas station, grocery store, and throughout the economy — increases that to varying degrees began before Russia’s invasion. Americans ranked the economy and inflation well above the war in Ukraine as a high priority for the United States to address in a recent CBS News/YouGov poll and nearly two-thirds of respondents said Biden could be doing more to lower gas prices.
The Biden administration has been trying to show it’s doing all it can. Late last month, the president announced the United States would release 1 million barrels of oil a day for six months from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. On Tuesday, he said the Environmental Protection Agency would issue an emergency waiver allowing for the sale of gasoline blended with ethanol through the summer, when it is normally banned because it can increase air pollution. The ethanol blend can cost at least 10 cents a gallon less, the White House said.
“I’m doing everything within my power by executive order to bring down the price and address the Putin price hike,” Biden said Tuesday at the ethanol announcement. “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away.”
Biden received a small boost in popularity in the immediate aftermath of the invasion as he helped lead the NATO response to deter Russia. But his average approval rating remains low at 42.2 percent, according to analytics website FiveThirtyEight.
“Even though it’s a momentous world event, I don’t think it’s really changed how people view the president in any sort of meaningful way,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “People’s concerns are generally domestic.”
And of those domestic concerns, high inflation affects people across the political and economic spectrum, and hits low-income Americans the hardest.
“It’s the number one thing that people are talking about because it affects them directly,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
And it’s not just consumers. In survey results released Tuesday by the National Federation of Independent Business, 31 percent of small business owners said inflation was the most important problem right now, the highest reading since 1981.
The Labor Department reported Tuesday that the consumer price index jumped 1.2 percent from February to March alone, the biggest one-month increase since 2005. That pushed the annualized inflation rate to 8.5 percent in March compared to a year earlier, the highest since 1981. The annual rate was 7.9 percent in February.
Gas prices were the major factor in the big monthly increase, shooting up 18.3 percent in March alone as the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 roiled the global oil market. Russia was the world’s largest oil producer in 2020 and investors started bidding up the price of oil late last year in anticipation that a conflict would disrupt supplies. Core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food prices, actually ticked down in March from the previous month, bolstering Biden’s assertion that Putin is to blame for the sharp overall increase.
Before the buildup to the invasion, gas prices had started trending down as supply was catching up with demand after the pandemic shutdowns, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research and consulting firm. The average for a gallon of regular gas was $3.28 the week ending Dec. 27, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Without the war, Zandi said, gas prices would be down to about $3 a gallon as the economy otherwise is very strong. Instead, the average was $4.09 for the week ending Monday, down from a high of $4.32 in mid-March.
“We’re all paying a lot more at the gas pump because of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Full stop,” Zandi said. “I don’t think there’s any other reason.”
Republicans are pushing a different narrative, however, insisting that high gas prices are primarily Biden’s fault and noting that gas prices and overall inflation have generally been rising since he took office.
“The president is literally gaslighting the American people,” Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, declared last month. “He feels if he says it enough, people are going to believe that fuel prices were Putin’s fault.”
Heye, the Republican strategist, said that while Biden and the Democrats have been consistent in their “Putin’s price hike” message, a year of rising inflation makes it a tough sell.
“Putin’s a perfect foil,” Heye said, “but he’s not enough of one.”
Republicans see inflation as a potent message in the midterm elections and will continue to hammer it, he said.
“As much as there’s culture war stuff happening in the congressional elections, more and more you’re seeing Republican leadership tell their members inflation is the issue,” Heye said.
Republicans only need to pick up one seat in the Senate and a handful in the House to win the majorities.
The simplicity and universality of inflation makes for a powerful election-year message, Kondick said.
“It’s easy to see if milk and eggs cost more than they did in the past,” he said.
Even though people disagree about why the prices are rising and who is to blame for it, the numbers confront everyone.
“People are looking at it every day,” Kondick said. “It’s something everybody has to deal with.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the last time the consumer price index had a larger monthly increase than it did in March. It was 2005.
Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.