Will voters support Biden when Russia oil ban hits gas prices and the GOP hits the airwaves?

Americans want to bring Russia to its knees with the new oil import ban. The GOP will make Biden and Democrats work hard to avoid a similar fate.

Americans are gung-ho on punishing Russia, I’ll say that for us. We are overwhelmingly in favor of military force if Russia attacks a NATO country, and we want to bring Russia to its knees by banning its oil exports

Call me skeptical. An equally likely outcome is that a ban brings President Joe Biden and Democrats to their knees in the midterm elections.

We’re all one big, unhappy pro-Ukraine family now. The helplessness as Russia inflicts horrors on Ukraine is crippling. What can we do? Biden decided Tuesday to go with prevailing opinion in both parties and ban Russian energy imports – "the main artery of Russia's economy," he said.

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But what happens when U.S. gas prices start soaring and don’t stop? They’re already north of $6 a gallon in parts of California, and on Tuesday the national average for a gallon of gas hit an all-time high of $4.17. 

Democrats have no good choices

And that's just the beginning of the spike. Can Americans sustain their militancy when the ban hits their wallets for real and Republicans hit the airwaves?

I wouldn’t put it past Republicans to support the ban now, which they do, then use it against Biden and Democrats in the midterm campaign. Even if they’re on record praising the idea, and voting for it. I mean, how many of them are taking credit for projects funded by the infrastructure bill they voted against? That’s on record, too.

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And there will be a bill. The House is moving forward with a package that would ban all energy imports from Russia, require a review of its membership in the World Trade Organization, and expand the range of sanctions that could be imposed.

President Joe Biden announces a ban on US imports of Russian oil and gas on March 8, 2022, at the White House in Washington, DC.

At least two polls have shown massive support for an energy ban: 

►In a Quinnipiac Poll released Monday, asked whether they supported a Russian oil ban if it meant higher gas prices in the United States, 71% (including 66% of Republicans) said yes. 

►In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll released Friday, 83% of Americans (including 79% of Republicans) said they supported economic sanctions against Russia. About 7 in 10 said they’d back the sanctions even if they drove up energy prices, but Republican support for sanctions dropped nearly 20 points to 58%.

Columnist Jill Lawrence:Biden is getting Ukraine and Russia right after Obama fell short and Trump was a disaster

It’s a terrible thing not to trust, but I’m not the only one who has little confidence in GOP good faith. “I have no doubt that Republicans will cheerlead this ban and then spend the rest of the year castigating the Biden White House for an increase in gas prices,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Added Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking Senate Democrat: “Of course they’ll use any tool in their toolbox, and one of them is to hold us accountable for any increase in cost of living.”

Yet, Biden and Democrats have little to lose. Republican leaders are already blaming them for rising prices: Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada! Biden greenlit Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Germany! Biden stopped issuing oil and gas permits on federal land! Biden’s Green New Deal is ruining us! 

People pump gas in Mount Lebanon, Pa., on March 7, 2022.

Let’s take these in order. For many reasons, including unknowns like when it would be completed, how much gas Canada would sell to us and whether it would be gas we already get transported another way, Keystone was no sure bet to offset a loss of Russian oil. In May, Biden waived sanctions on Nord Stream as he tried to mend relations with Germany, but he imposed them last month as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine.

As for oil and gas drilling, Biden said he would halt leases, not permits. He’s issuing permits on land already under lease at a faster pace than President Donald Trump did. And the Green New Deal never passed.

COVID-19 is part of the gas price problem

Given some of the countries that produce oil and gas, energy policy is always fraught. It is disturbing to see Biden administration overtures to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran in anticipation of cutting off Russian oil. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board calls it bizarre.

It's a Catch-22 made even trickier by the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for gas plunged during lockdowns, so companies and nations cut production and workers. When demand eventually rose, so did prices.

There's no escaping inflation, and there's no escaping the West's determination to make Russia pay for its horrific criminal rampage through Ukraine. Biden and Democrats could try to pass gas tax rebates or other relief for low-income drivers, but their main task is to prepare Americans for sticker shock in the name of defending Ukraine and democracy.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence