Why King Oil Rules American PoliticsRoundup
tags: Saudi Arabia, OPEC, oil, gas prices
Meg Jacobs teaches history and public affairs at Princeton and is the author of Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America and Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s.
President Biden knows the political power of the price of gasoline.
About two weeks ago, fearing what an uptick in gas prices might do to Democrats at the ballot box in the midterms, Mr. Biden announced the release of 15 million barrels from the United States’ emergency petroleum stockpile in an effort to drive down prices. A gallon now costs $3.78 on average compared with $5.03 five months ago, but that is still higher than what Americans want to pay.
To show he means business, Mr. Biden went a step further this week, calling on Congress to consider a windfall profits tax on oil companies, which are reaping record gains since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a spike in oil prices. “It’s time for these companies to stop war profiteering,” Mr. Biden said.
As he contemplates whether these measures will be enough to save his party on Tuesday, he seems to be recalling the early days of his political career. Mr. Biden entered the Senate in 1973, at the age of 30, just as the energy crisis of the 1970s was changing life as Americans had known it. In October of that year, in response to America’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC’s Arab members imposed an embargo on the United States, sending prices soaring by more than sevenfold.
To understand the consequences of this price hike, the young senator from Delaware hitched a ride on a 47,000-pound big rig hauling hollow-shell pipe for a 15-hour, 536-mile journey through five states. After talking to hundreds of angry truckers at a stop in Shiloh, Ohio, Mr. Biden was sympathetic. The winter storm he had just driven through was, he said, “nothing compared to the snow job truck drivers I met believe the government is handing them.”
The energy situation would spell political trouble for President Richard Nixon, already deeply wounded by Watergate, as Americans blamed elected officials for their troubles. Millions of Americans were waiting in lines to fill up their tanks and feeling the pinch of higher prices on their family budgets. “What is worse than ‘Watergate’ and all the various charges against the president? Answer — the gas crisis in Bergen County,” a suburban New Jersey man wrote to his senator. “We the American People are tired of the lack of competent and effective leadership,” the Concerned Citizens of Maryland told Mr. Nixon.
Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia, accused his predecessors of “gross mismanagement” as he ran for president seeking to quell the energy crisis. But after his 1976 election, Mr. Carter wasn’t so lucky: A second oil shock struck in 1979, this one triggered by unrest in Iran. Prices soared again, up more than 1,000 percent since the start of the decade. “I’ll give it to you straight,” Mr. Carter said in 1979. “Each one of us will have to use less oil and pay more for it.”