Fuel Price Surge Poses Major Midterms Risk for Joe Biden and Democrats

The rising cost of fuel could prove a crucial issue in next year's midterm elections as Democrats hope to maintain control of the House of Representatives and make gains in the Senate.

The price of gasoline in the U.S. has reached around $3.20 a gallon amid rising demand as people return to work and normal life resumes following the COVID pandemic. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and their partners, known as OPEC+, this week chose not to substantially increase oil supply. The decision could further increase prices.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told The Financial Times energy transition summit on Wednesday that President Joe Biden's administration hadn't ruled out tapping the nation's emergency oil reserves, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

"It's a tool that's under consideration," Granholm said. She also didn't rule out reinstating a ban on crude oil exports.

"That's a tool that we have not used, but it is a tool as well," the energy secretary said.

The export ban was lifted by former President Barack Obama in 2015. U.S. presidents have sometimes tapped the SPR, releasing crude oil from the reserve in an effort to ease oil prices.

Obama ordered the sale of 30.6 million barrels of oil in 2011 in reaction to a supply disruption from Libya. The Obama administration's decision was coordinated with nations in the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA released 30 million barrels at that time.

Political experts told Newsweek on Thursday that rising fuel prices carried risks for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, but could also present an opportunity for Biden if he acts to reduce costs for ordinary Americans.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that gasoline price rises would be a major issue for voters next year.

"Rising fuel costs certainly won't do Democrats any favors heading in 2022," Gift said. "Few consumer expenses have the potential to provoke the ire of voters more than eye-popping prices at the pump. That's especially true in rural and suburban areas, where citizens are more likely to drive than use public transportation."

"Higher fuel prices - by increasing the costs of production, transportation, and shipping - can also balloon general price levels. The last thing the Biden administration needs right now is more inflationary pressure on the U.S. economy, which experts have already warned could be worse than usual in light of the pandemic response bill and other big-ticket federal spending proposals on the agenda," he went on.

"It's no surprise that Biden isn't ruling out any options to combat these trends - including tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Whether that would be enough to check significant overall increases in the consumer price index is perhaps more doubtful," Gift said.

Mark Shanahan is an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage. He told Newsweek rising fuel prices could also be an opportunity for Biden.

Possible Opportunity for Biden

"The midterms will be won on the state of Joe and Jess America's wallet," Shanahan said. "Voters will be judging how well the administration has steered a path through the pandemic to economic recovery. If tapping into U.S. fuel reserves is a tool for Biden to keep dollars in America's wallets he should use it."

"This is about ensuring some price stability now. And stability builds confidence. There's plenty of time to replenish the reserves and that could be a win for the government too if it's being seen to support the domestic oil industry," he went on.

"Of course, he has his usual balancing act, managing fossil fuel needs with the growing shift to green energy. But the U.S. runs on gas. And enabling that while cooling prices should play well politically as the midterm races get moving," Shanahan said.

Joe Biden Walks with Nancy Pelosi
President Joe Biden walks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as he arrives to meet with House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on October 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. Rising fuel prices represent a risk for Democrats in next year's midterm elections. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images