Growing inflation concerns, violence in the Middle East and gas stations sans gas: Republicans love the script the news cycle just handed them because it feels like an easy, low-budget summer reboot. They are desperate to cast Joe Biden as Jimmy Carter, and they point to a cyber-blocked fuel pipeline as the clearest evidence yet of a nation losing ground.
Of course, the president rejects the portrayal. “We’re going to get through this as we always do: as Americans, and we’re going to do it together,” Biden promised Thursday at the White House, “and it’s going to be quick.” Though a gallon of gas is going for more than $3 nationally, he said the shortages caused by the hack of the 5,500-mile Colonial Pipeline would be temporary.
His message to consumers, some of whom started hoarding gasoline in everything from jerrycans to Tupperware over the weekend, was simple: “Don’t panic.” Fuel was flowing again by the time Biden spoke, and he said his administration expects “the situation to begin to improve by the weekend and into early next week.” His message to gas station owners? “Do not -- I repeat, do not -- try to take advantage of consumers” by price gouging.
A ransomware attack coming out of Russia cut off the conduit, which snakes through the South and up the Eastern Seaboard to the New York metro area, for five days and sent prices soaring, forcing consumers in some states into long lines. The administration responded quickly with emergency measures that allowed states to waive EPA requirements and use non-compliant fuel, and eased regulations to allow swifter transportation of gas by rail and road, and even temporarily suspended the Jones Act, which requires that ships moving goods – in this case fuel -- between U.S. ports be owned and operated by domestic companies.
Biden reported that the assessment of the intelligence community was that “the Russian government was involved in this attack.” He added that “we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia.” He pledged to hold the Kremlin accountable for criminal activity that occurred within that nation’s borders.
The president also tried to flip the script — from crisis to a story about the need to advance his legislative agenda: “Let me say,” he said wrapping up his prepared remarks, “that this event is providing an urgent reminder of why we need to harden our infrastructure and make it more resilient against all threats, natural and manmade.”
The brief energy crisis came to an apparent close not because of federal action, however, but because Colonial gave in to the hackers’ demands. Asked about the company’s decision to pay a $5 million ransom to the group DarkSide, Biden replied, “I have no comment on that.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated later in the briefing room that the administration does not condone caving to hackers: “It continues to be the position of the federal government that it is not in the interests of the private sector for companies to pay ransom because it incentivizes these actions.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have seized on the energy crisis to force a late-1970s comparison.
"Joe Biden is the new Jimmy Carter," Republican Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted Tuesday morning, then added Thursday that “in four months, we’ve gone from energy independence to lines to get gas.”
"I see that everybody is comparing Joe Biden to Jimmy Carter. It would seem to me that is very unfair to Jimmy Carter," former President Trump said in a mocking statement. "Jimmy mishandled crisis after crisis, but Biden has created crisis after crisis."
Several attorneys general from Republican states argued that the Colonial shortage was made worse by the administration’s earlier decision to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The entire episode was evidence, Montana AG Austin Knudsen told RealClearPolitics, that more pipelines, not fewer, are needed. “We're in a full-out, Jimmy Carter gas shortage because of one pipeline,” Knudsen said. “I hope this wakes some people up in the White House. This is just silly.” (The Keystone pipeline was intended to convey crude oil, not gasoline, from Canada to Nebraska, where it would join an existing pipeline that runs to the Gulf Coast.)
Republicans have struggled to peg the president as inept or out of touch, at least so far. The nicknames Trump gave him, including “Sleepy Joe” and “Hidin’ Biden,” never really stuck, and the president’s approval ratings remain in positive territory. They hope the Carter comparison sticks long after oil starts flowing, however. An anemic April jobs report and inflation fears, they believe, bolster that case.
Even some Democrats are sounding the alarm about the rising costs of goods ranging from a pack of cigarettes to a new car. "Policymakers at the Fed and in the [White House] need to recognize that the risk of a Vietnam inflation scenario is now greater than the deflation risks on which they were originally focused," former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said on CNN. “Whatever was the case a few months ago, it should now be clear that overheating – not excess slack – is the dominant economic risk facing the U.S. over the next year or two.”
The White House insists it is monitoring the inflation situation closely. On Thursday, though, the administration had more positive news to tout, namely the end of a national annoyance. The Centers for Disease Control announced that it is no longer recommending that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks outdoors or indoors.
The new guidance was reason for celebration and the president set aside all the talk about pipelines and consumer prices when he made his remarks in the Rose Garden. “You have endured all this,” Biden said. “When your country asked you to get vaccinated, you did. The American people stepped up. You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty. That's how we have gotten to this day.”