Biden’s New Economic Scorecard: The Price at the Pump

WASHINGTON — After topping $5 a gallon in June, the price of gasoline has fallen for more than a month. The Biden administration wants to tell you about it. Again and again.

President Biden and his top aides are in an all-out campaign to trumpet what is, as of Friday, 38 consecutive days of declines in the AAA average gas price nationwide. The president mentioned that streak in a news conference in Saudi Arabia and at the start of a speech on abortion rights. Aides have repeatedly trotted out charts showing the downward trajectory in news briefings and chastised reporters for not devoting more time to the subject.

When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico needled Mr. Biden in a meeting at the White House this month, saying that Americans were crossing the border to buy cheaper gas, the president interrupted him.

“It has gone down for 30 days in a row,” Mr. Biden said.

Celebrating the daily declines at the pump has become his version of President Donald J. Trump’s rampant bragging about gains in the stock market: a public obsession with a single economic indicator in hopes of driving a winning narrative with consumers and voters.

Embracing this particular trend comes with obvious risks for Mr. Biden. Gas prices notoriously bounce up and down, and events outside his control could easily push them up again. If the administration’s efforts to impose a global price cap on Russian oil exports falls through before year’s end, White House economists fear that prices could soar higher than they were this spring, to potentially $7 per gallon.

Gasoline cheerleading also poses an ironic challenge to Mr. Biden’s efforts to confront the mounting crisis of a warming planet.

The jump in prices has had the short-term effect of forcing budget-constrained Americans to drive less, temporarily reducing the consumption of fossil fuels that drive global warming. But White House aides say the high prices are not helping Mr. Biden’s efforts to move the country to a low-emissions future. Instead, those costs might be undermining his longer-term climate goals by bolstering political and public support for more oil drilling and other fossil-fuel projects.

High prices for motorists have already soured voters on the president’s handling of the economy and his overall performance in office. Mr. Biden, who speaks frequently of growing up in a working-class family where “if the price of gas went up, you felt it,” has for months tried to reassure voters that he is doing whatever he can to bring those prices down.

When gasoline climbed past $3 a gallon nationwide in the fall, as global demand for oil increased amid the rebound of economic activity from the pandemic, Mr. Biden opened the taps of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In the spring, when prices reached $4 a gallon, he announced a waiver allowing summer sales of higher-ethanol gasoline, which costs slightly less for drivers but emits more greenhouse gases over its life cycle.

Analysts say the president’s efforts may have helped hold down prices at the margins. But no economists give the administration even a majority of credit for the steep drop in global oil prices that began in early June. Instead, they point to market forces: reduced oil demand from China, which is enduring another wave of restrictions because of the coronavirus, and weakening economic activity in Europe and other wealthy nations. Russian oil has also continued to flow to world markets despite sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations.

The average national price reported by AAA on Friday was $4.41 per gallon. The drop over the past month is likely to produce a more favorable inflation rate for July than the 9.1 percent annual increase of the Consumer Price Index that the Labor Department reported for June. Industry analysts and futures markets suggest more relief is likely to be expected in the coming weeks.

Mr. Biden’s team has embraced the change. “Good morning!” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Gas prices are going down.”

While administration officials sought to deflect blame for rising oil prices over the past year, they were happy to claim at least partial credit for the current decline.

“While there’s a lot that goes into setting the global oil and gas price,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a news briefing on Monday, “the historic actions taken by President Biden to address the impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have helped and continue to help to increase the global supply of oil and therefore are in the mix of factors driving down the price.”

Republicans say they are surprised the administration is celebrating at all, when prices remain more than $2 a gallon higher than they were when Mr. Biden took office. (They do not mention that he inherited an economy where global demand for oil was suppressed by the coronavirus pandemic.)

It might also seem counterintuitive that the president is encouraging lower gasoline costs while he pursues what aides promise will be an ambitious unilateral agenda to cut greenhouse gas emissions. “I will do everything in my power to clean our air and water,” Mr. Biden said at a climate event in Massachusetts on Wednesday, to “protect our people’s health, to win the clean energy future.”

Economists largely agree that raising the prices of fossil fuels like coal and gasoline is a way to ensure that consumers burn less of them and to encourage switching to lower-emission alternatives like electric vehicles. The Energy Department reported on Wednesday that gasoline use in the United States was down nearly 8 percent over the past four weeks compared with the same period a year ago. That continued for the second quarter of the year, which the Energy Information Administration said might have been the result of rising gasoline prices.

But Biden administration officials — even economists who have previously favored steps to raise taxes on fossil fuels — say the high prices are not helping the president’s climate agenda.

The prices are reinvigorating a push by Republicans for increased oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which Mr. Biden promised to end while campaigning for president. Recent price volatility could also give customers pause when they consider buying a more efficient gas-powered vehicle, or an electric one, when supply-chain shortages in the automobile industry are making it harder for consumers to buy electric cars anyway.

Aides to Mr. Biden have privately said for months that to keep Americans on board with the energy transition, gas prices need to come down — definitely below $4 a gallon, and hopefully below $3, which was the national average at the start of last summer.

If prices continue to decline at the rate they have over the past month, the nationwide average would slip below $3 a gallon in the final weeks of campaigning before the midterm elections. In about 79 days, to be exact.

Not that anyone’s counting.

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