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President Biden bans Russian oil imports

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Biden today banned U.S. imports of Russian oil and gas. It's a show of support for Ukraine that's rattling oil markets. Biden faced pressure from Congress to take this step, but he also had a warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Since Putin began his military buildup on Ukrainian borders, just since then, the price of the gas at the pump in America went up 75 cents. And with this action, it's going to go up further. I'm going to do everything I can to minimize Putin's price hike here at home.

MCCAMMON: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and national political correspondent Mara Liasson join me now. Welcome to both of you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

MCCAMMON: Mara, let's start with you. The White House has insisted until now that it didn't want sanctions to affect global energy supplies. So what made the president change his mind and go ahead with this?

LIASSON: I think there were a couple of things. First and foremost, there was bipartisan consensus in Congress. Republicans and Democrats both wanted to do this. And as you heard Biden just say, he was reluctant to do anything that would make gas prices go up for American consumers. And he also said he wanted to work in lockstep with allies to punish Russia.

Today, he said he understood that all the allies might not be able to come along with the U.S. and ban Russian oil completely, but he's decided to go ahead. And, you know, he thinks that that will raise the price for Putin of the invasion of Ukraine.

MCCAMMON: And Scott, are other countries likely to follow Biden's move?

HORSLEY: It's hard to say. For the United States, this is a fairly easy step. This country wasn't buying much oil from Russia anyway, and the small amount it did buy can easily be replaced. Europe, on the other hand, is much more dependent on Russian energy supplies, both oil and natural gas, so any boycott there would be much more painful.

Even if Europe doesn't formally ban imports in the coming days or weeks, though, you are seeing an effort by the Europeans to wean themselves off Russian energy over the longer term. Amy Myers Jaffe, who's an energy expert at Tufts' Fletcher School, says that's a major shift for policymakers who've long believed that closer commercial ties with Russia would help to guarantee peace.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: I think that building-bridges approach has been completely discredited now. And so now it's about energy security; it's how do I reduce the need for Russian oil and gas?

HORSLEY: That could mean bringing in more liquid natural gas from other countries, building more renewable energy sources, more investments in efficiency. It's not going to happen overnight, but we may look back on this and say Russia's invasion sparked a crash course in alternatives to Russian fossil fuels.

MCCAMMON: Mara, the president, in his remarks, repeatedly put the blame on Russia for the high gas prices that we're seeing now. What can you tell us about the politics behind his messaging there?

LIASSON: Well, I thought one of the most important political lines of the speech - you heard him in that clip you played - was he called this Putin's price hike. The president is trying to change the narrative around inflation. You know, this is the top issue for voters for the November elections. It's the biggest reason that Biden's approval numbers on the economy are so low.

And of course, Republicans have been weaponizing this. They've been saying that rising prices at the pump are because of Biden. They've been putting stickers on gas pumps, a little picture of Biden pointing to the price with the caption I did this.

So Biden is now saying even though prices were on the rise before Russia invaded Ukraine for a whole bunch of reasons, now Putin is his foil, and he can blame Putin for the rise at the pump. Democrats think this has the potential to shift the ground of the political debate around inflation. Polls show that at least for now, large numbers of the public say they support a ban on Russian oil and gas, and they even would continue supporting it if prices at the pump rose.

Now, what happens over time when people start paying these prices week after week? We don't know. But there's no doubt that President Biden is now a war president. There has been a groundswell of support for Ukraine. People are outraged. They support this move to ban Russian oil.

And Republicans are in danger of losing one of their biggest weapons, which is to blame Biden for high prices of gas, and they say it's all because he restricted U.S. energy production. Of course, today, he went to great lengths to explain that's actually not true. There are thousands and thousands of permits issued to private oil and gas companies that are not being used in the United States.

MCCAMMON: And Scott, as drivers know, these are all-time highs for gas prices in the U.S. What's ahead for drivers?

HORSLEY: Well, we may not have seen the peak yet. By the way, adjusted for inflation, gasoline is still considerably cheaper today than it was back in 2008, the last time the price topped $4. But look, this does hurt with overall inflation as high as it is. Amy Myers Jaffe does suggest that, you know, if people want to stick it to Vladimir Putin, one option is some patriotic conservation. They could try driving a little less and turning down the thermostat.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Scott Horsley and Mara Liasson. Thank you both so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.