US oil
US oil Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: US President Joe Biden announced a plan on Wednesday to sell off the rest of his release from the nation's emergency oil reserve by year's end and begin refilling the stockpile as he tries to dampen high petrol prices ahead of midterm elections on Nov. 8.

Biden is seeking to add enough supply to prevent near-term oil price spikes that could punish Americans, and assure US drillers that the government will enter the market as a buyer if prices plunge too low.

He said 15 million barrels of oil will be offered from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) — part of a record 180 million-barrel release that began in May, and added the United States is ready to tap reserves again early next year to rein in prices.

We're calling it a ready and release plan" Biden said at a White House event. This allows us to move quickly to prevent oil price spikes and respond to international events."

Biden's use of the federal government's reserve to manage oil price spikes and attempts to increase US production underscore how the Ukraine crisis and inflation have changed the policies of a president who came into office vowing to cut US dependence on the fossil fuel industry.

Approval rating

With President Biden's approval rating hovering in the 40s, he has not received a lot of invites to campaign with embattled Democrats.

But that is not stopping him from spending the week touting policies that he hopes will resonate with voters — though his stumping has mostly been in D.C. and without a candidate by his side.

On Tuesday, Biden announced the SPR release and brushed aside Republican claims that the move was political, noting that it was not the first time he'd ordered such a withdrawal.

"No it's not," he said. "I've been doing this for how long now? It's not politically motivated at all. It's motivated to make sure that I continue to push on what I've been pushing on. And that is making sure there's enough oil that's being pumped by the companies so that we have the ability to be able to produce enough gas that we need here at home, oil we need here at home, and, at the same time, keep moving in the direction of providing for alternative energy."

In the final stretch before Election Day on Nov. 8, with early voting already underway in some states, Biden's strategy seems to be to hit on one or two big campaign themes a day.

Midterm elections historically come in the midst of a dip in the president's popularity that creates a rough landscape for the party in power, and this one is no exception.

George W. Bush is the only president in recent memory whose party gained House seats at the halfway point of his first term, and that came as voters rallied behind him in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The 2022 version of those head winds is illustrated by Biden's plans this weekend: spending time in his vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., while other Democrats campaign furiously in their home states. Still, the White House has spent the week trying to show that Biden is addressing issues close to voters' hearts and their wallets.

Top concerns: economy, inflation and the cost of living

Most prominent in that effort is Wednesday's announcement about the petroleum reserve. Polls regularly show that the economy, inflation and the cost of living are top concerns for voters by a wide margin, and Biden sought to show the progress his administration has made on the issue. While many economists are skeptical releasing the oil will have much of an impact on prices at the pump, the White House hopes it at least helps persuade voters that Biden is doing all he can to ease their pain.

"Without the steps we have taken over the past several months to ramp up production and lower prices and get relief to consumers, gas prices would be higher than they are today," Biden said, adding that he is "acting aggressively" to counter the damaging choices made by other countries. "We'll keep doing everything we can to keep it going, to ensure our energy independence and security is available and to lower gas prices here at home and to give folks a little bit of breathing room," he added.

But polls suggest Republicans have made political headway blaming Biden and the Democrats for high petrol prices.

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office reissued comments he made recently on the Senate floor saying Democrats have long refused to take advantage of America's reserves of oil and natural gas.

"Families across America have felt the brunt of this all-Democratic government's failed energy policies," said McConnell (R-Kentucky).

"American families and small businesses know their electricity bills skyrocketed this spring and summer, and they know that heating costs on Democrats' watch this fall and winter may be catastrophic."

Over the past year, Biden has tried to pin higher gas prices on Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the fuel shortages and supply disruptions that followed, deeming the rising costs "Putin's price hike." He has also faulted energy companies for raising prices quickly when oil prices spike but lowering them slowly when costs go down.

"My message to the American energy companies is this: You should not be using your profits to buy back stock or for dividends. Not now. Not while a war is raging," Biden said Wednesday. "You should use those record-breaking profits to increase production and refining."

The White House has released about 165 million barrels from the reserve since announcing a drawdown last spring of as many as 180 million barrels, the largest-ever release from the reserve. On Wednesday, Biden and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not rule out that further releases could be coming, depending on geopolitical events.

While boasting of his administration's actions this week, Biden has also sniped at Republicans, or at least tried to draw contrasts between the two parties.

Opposing infrastructure law

During a separate announcement about electric batteries on Wednesday, he said Republicans who had vociferously opposed the infrastructure law were now asking for some of its funds to be diverted to their constituents.

"You may have seen the news reports describing Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill and the Democrats who passed it because it's 'socialism,'" he said.

"Well, now quietly ... they're sending me and the administration letters asking for money in the same bill, talking about how important the projects would be for their districts, if we just gave them the money. I know I was really surprised to find out there are so many socialists in the Republican caucus."

Keeping a relatively quiet schedule, as other people campaign busily, is a new experience for Biden. He has been a top stand-in for Democrats during his five decades in politics, including in areas where his party is not always welcome, something he boasted about during the 2020 presidential primary.

As vice president, he was a key surrogate for the Obama administration in the tough 2010 midterms, venturing into districts where President Barack Obama was not asked to go. Biden also spent the 1970s and 1980s traveling the country and keynoting Democratic functions.

But this year, according to a Washington Post analysis of more than 60 candidates in competitive races, Biden has been attacked more often in televised ads than Obama was at the same point in 2010 or President Donald Trump was in 2018.

Candidates have announced scheduling conflicts when he comes to their states, or openly asked him to stay away, keeping his face and name off their campaign websites and Twitter accounts.