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Politics chat: OPEC deals blow to Biden's hopes of keeping inflation down before midterms


Some unwelcome news for the Biden administration just a few weeks before the midterms - a vote by OPEC+ countries to cut oil production in an effort to boost oil prices. Of course, higher oil prices means higher gas prices, adding to the anxiety many Americans feel these days about their own budgets and bottom lines. Joining me now to talk about what this all means politically is NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha. Good to be with you.

RASCOE: So it was just a couple of months ago as gas was coming down from a national average of $5 a gallon that President Biden paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Now, the White House said that wasn't about oil. And, you know, maybe that was or was not the case. People thought it was. But either way, Saudis are not producing more oil. You have this OPEC vote. So what can Biden do now?

KHALID: So when the news broke, the White House issued a statement immediately saying that the president was disappointed by the, quote, "shortsighted decision." And on Thursday, as President Biden was about to board the Marine One helicopter, he was asked by reporters, what's your reaction to the OPEC+ decision?


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Disappointment. And we're looking at what alternatives we may have.

KHALID: He was asked explicitly if Venezuela would be one of those alternatives.


BIDEN: There's a lot of alternatives. We haven't made up our mind yet.

KHALID: And one of the president's top economic advisers told reporters this week that nothing is off the table when you talk about alternatives. So a couple of options that experts have mentioned is lifting sanctions on Venezuela to allow the country to just produce more oil that other countries could obtain from there or placing export restrictions on U.S. energy or even trying to crack down on OPEC itself. The White House said this past week that it plans to consult with Congress on additional tools to reduce OPEC's control over energy prices. And one oil analyst I spoke with suggested that could be huge. He has not seen any president on the right or the left willing to push OPEC. There is talk in Congress of this NOPEC bill, as it's known, to curb OPEC's influence. It's been introduced, reintroduced over the years, never gone anywhere, and there's thought that maybe the momentum now is different.

And, Ayesha, one last thing I should note is that one reason gas prices went down earlier this year was that the Biden administration released a record amount of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And after this OPEC news came out this week, the administration announced it would order the release of 10 million more barrels from the reserve in November.

RASCOE: So we're expecting to see new economic numbers this week. You know, how much is the health of the economy resonating with voters? That's usually, like, a top issue, right?

KHALID: And it has, I would say, consistently been a top issue for voters. If you look at Gallup polls for months, I would say, going back to at least October of last year, people have been saying that the economy is the most important problem in the country, and that's mainly because of inflation. You know, prices have been stubbornly high - and not just gas, but food, rent, utility bills. And economists that I've spoken with say that inflation registers emotionally with people in a way that other economic data just doesn't. And that's particularly the case for gas prices because, you know, people drive around. They see those big signs that flash what the gas price is, and so it has this inflated value in people's minds, and that is why, potentially, rising gas prices this close to the elections is not ideal for Democrats.

RASCOE: So in the about - of the minute we have left, Democrats had been heartened by the sense that maybe there wouldn't be a red wave in the midterms and that maybe they could hold on to the Senate. With just about a month to go, what are the challenges for both parties?

KHALID: Well, the main challenge for both parties is turnout. There is very little persuasion left in politics, right? So it's about making sure that your respective voters actually vote. Democrats have been trying to hammer home concerns over abortion, democracy and Donald Trump as a way to energize voters, and Republicans are trying to elevate concerns over immigration, crime and the economy. There are two main wildcards in this election. One is the Supreme Court Dobbs decision because it seems to be energizing Democrats despite the president's approval numbers. The second wildcard, though, is the former president. He seems to be ever-present, Donald Trump. And usually, midterms are a referendum on the president in power, but I would say Trump's presence has made this very unpredictable and more of a choice this election cycle.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.