Talking Points

War in Ukraine means pain at the pump, and that's bad for Democrats

Are Americans ready to make a personal sacrifice for some greater good across the Atlantic?

Probably not, and that's going to cost President Biden and his party in the United States.

Vladimir Putin's decision to send Russian troops into the disputed breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine will have a lot of knock-on effects around the world, including higher gas prices. 

Biden's poll numbers (and those of his party) are already suffering in large part due to voter angst over inflation. Americans get angry when they have to pay a lot more for gas. Thanks to Putin, it's likely they're about to start paying even more — as much as an added 50 cents a gallon on top of prices that are already high. Russia is, after all, the second-largest oil producer in the world; any big sanctions package will try to hurt the country's most important industry.

"The only sanctions that stand a chance of deterring Putin are going to hurt us, too," the scholars Edward Fishman and Chris Miller wrote last month at Politico

Biden himself has already pledged to "provide relief at the gas pump." But it's not clear that Americans will escape feeling the pinch of events in Ukraine. The White House has tried to prepare the public for that possibility. "Defending democracy and liberty is never without costs, but we need to convey to the American people exactly what that could look like," Jen Psaki, the administration's spokesperson, said last week.

Americans have shown little interest in paying Psaki's price. When the United States itself was attacked on 9/11, President George W. Bush urged the country to keep spending and carry on. "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida," he said. Since then, the notion of "shared sacrifice" has taken a few more body blows — will voters who refuse to get masked up or get vaccines because of "freedom" be patient with paying an extra 20 or 30 bucks every time they fill up their big trucks? For the sake of Ukraine? It's hard to imagine.

It's also easy to see how Republicans might demagogue the issue. They're already blaming Putin's moves on Biden's supposed "weakness," while mostly avoiding the question of how a GOP president could have or should have handled things differently without plunging the United States into war with a nuclear-armed power. The lack of a viable alternative doesn't matter — the attacks will probably draw blood. Which means it's very possible that Putin's march into Ukraine could end with Donald Trump back in the White House.