Joe Biden playing politics with Strategic Petroleum Reserve


Joe Biden has been abusing his authority as president to aid his party in the midterm elections. We know, we know — we need to be more specific. This time, it’s the abuse of his powers as commander in chief in negotiating with Saudi Arabia and in drawing down the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Democrats have a gas-price problem. High gas prices are the most visible sign of inflation, as well as a driver of inflation in the prices of many goods. The average price of a gallon of regular gas is $3.87, and while that is down from the historic high of $5.02 in June, it is still noticeably higher than the $3.33 price of a year ago or the $3.68 price of a month ago. Biden bet heavily on the decline after June’s high as proof that inflation was over, so the recent spike has driven the White House into a panic with only three weeks until Election Day. Moreover, the obvious solution to high gas prices — increasing domestic production — is ideologically anathema to the people around the president.

What Biden is pursuing instead is any avenue to temporarily increase supply just until Election Day. The one domestic lever he has is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was designed in 1975 to ensure adequate fuel supply for the military and essential industries in case of a foreign conflict that interrupts the flow of oil — say, a conflict with Russia. Presidents have too often treated the SPR as a piggy bank to soften gas-price spikes at politically inconvenient times, but never at the scale that Biden is doing now.

Biden is set to announce this week more releases of oil from the SPR, following similar announcements in early October, and nobody has the slightest illusion as to why. Reuters, breaking the news based on administration sources, described it as “a bid to dampen fuel prices before next month’s congressional elections.” Bloomberg said the “efforts come as gasoline prices set off alarms before election.” CNN said that “officials have closely eyed Biden’s ability to trigger new releases within the bounds of the initial program as Election Day looms.”

Biden has already released more than a third of the SPR, dropping it to the lowest level in four decades, and would take it down further to around half of its capacity. This does nothing to encourage more production or less consumption; Biden is just buying time. He will have to start buying oil again at some point, quite likely at higher prices — but after the election. The cynicism of his calculation is obvious, and serves no interest but that of his party. Also, as with many of Biden’s election-year gambits, it is politically short-sighted, because there will be another election in two years, and Biden’s hat will be out of rabbits.

The SPR releases can put downward pressure on oil prices, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish, especially given that world oil-futures markets understand that these are short-term supplies only. In order to pump more gas supply without increasing domestic production, therefore, Biden needs to turn to foreign suppliers. The big one, with major influence in the OPEC+ cartel, is Saudi Arabia.

When Biden went hat in hand to beg the Saudi regime in mid-October to delay OPEC+ oil supply cuts for a month into mid-November, the Saudis saw the timing for what it was. The Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. officials warned Saudi leaders that a cut . . . would weaken already-waning support in Washington for the kingdom” and that Saudi officials “viewed [the requests] as a political gambit by the Biden administration to avoid bad news ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.” While the administration angrily denied the motivation, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby admitted to both the request and the timeline: “We presented Saudi Arabia with analysis to show that . . . they could easily wait for the next OPEC meeting to see how things developed.”

This blew up in Biden’s face when the Saudis instead chose the moment to humiliate Biden by lobbying for the cuts. Biden’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been fraught from the start for two reasons. One, the kingdom’s most serious enemy is Iran, so the efforts of the Biden administration to renew the Obama-era push for a reorientation of U.S. policy in the region around a rapprochement with Tehran is rightly seen by the Saudis as a grave threat to their security and to their longstanding alignment with the United States. Two, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a pariah over its murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. While Khashoggi’s brutal slaying was indefensible, it was foolhardy to pivot the entire multifaceted U.S. relationship on it — with the result that Biden needs to curry favor with other brutal regimes such as Venezuela. In either event, Biden gave the Saudis ample incentive to leverage his naked political desperation against him.

In all of this, Biden has played self-interested party politics with the nation’s foreign policy, and violated the sacred trust placed in him by his countrymen. Some on the right have argued that, in subordinating American foreign policy to electoral strategy, Biden has committed the same offense as Donald Trump did in 2019. At the time, we denounced Trump’s improper attempt to leverage aid to Ukraine in order to get Volodymyr Zelensky to give him information about Biden family influence-peddling in Ukraine and about Biden’s alleged interference to protect his son. Biden’s misconduct today is more conventional: He did not send campaign officials through unofficial channels to foreign governments, and he tried to influence the election not by gathering dirt but by offering some short-term benefits to American voters, albeit at a cost to the national interest that will come back to bite those voters’ pocketbooks later. That said, this is very much within the same family of abuses of power as what got Trump impeached the first time. It is yet another reminder that Biden and his party believe in principles so long as they don’t interfere with their partisan interests. 

More to the point, this is bad without any reference to Donald Trump, and we should resist the temptation to excuse any presidential behavior that is not precisely identical to Trump’s. The American president’s first job is the security of the nation. That Joe Biden sees this as secondary to winning some congressional elections testifies to the smallness and shabbiness of the man in comparison to the office he occupies.

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