Fact check: Were gas prices higher under George Bush or Joe Biden?

Posted October 29, 2021 4:44 p.m. EDT
Updated October 29, 2021 4:50 p.m. EDT

President Joe Biden has faced a lot of criticism from Republicans for the rise in gasoline prices since he took office. But the left-wing social media account Occupy Democrats claims that under one Republican president, prices were far higher.

"You won’t see THIS on Fox ‘News’: Gas prices were WAY higher in 2008, under REPUBLICAN president George W. Bush," Occupy Democrats wrote on Facebook.

The post included images of two gas station price signs, labeled 2008 and 2021. It was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

We’re not sure where or when the photos of gas signs were taken, but they do accurately reflect the gasoline prices that were in effect at the time.

Statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration back up the claim about prices. During the past 20 years, the highest gas prices occurred in July 2008, during the Bush administration.

But the statement leaves out important context. Some of the lowest prices of the past 20 years also occurred during the Bush administration, which included both the post-9/11 economic slowdown and the 2008 Wall Street crash and financial crisis.

Indeed, gas prices have fluctuated within and across administrations, with little correlation to which president or party is in power. As with most things, the price of gasoline is determined not by the president, but rather by the state of the economy and the balance of supply and demand. Following our inquiries, Occupy Democrats changed its post to reflect this.

Occupy Democrats cofounder Rafael Rivero told PolitiFact that the point of its original claim was to highlight the context that it says was missing from critiques of the Biden administration. The fact that prices were at historic highs during the Bush administration "is conveniently ignored by the chorus of Fox News anchors blaming Biden for today’s rising prices," Rivero said.

Today’s gas prices are around $3.32 a gallon, up from $2.37 when the Biden administration took office, according to the EIA. That’s still well off the peak of about $4.11 in July 2008.

But Bush’s term also included two major economic shocks that sent gasoline prices tumbling. The first was the 9/11 attacks in 2001. By the end of that year, gas prices were around $1.07. The other was the 2008 mortgage crisis and Wall Street collapse, near the end of his second term. By the time Obama took over, gas prices were down to about $1.83.

The intersection of supply and demand

While the health of the economy influences the demand side of the price balance, global supply is largely controlled by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

"OPEC tries to control the price of oil by either increasing or decreasing production to keep the price of oil stable," De Haan said.

In 2001, the average price of oil set by OPEC countries was around $23 a barrel. That low price incentivized more consumption, and global demand began to rise during Bush’s second term, De Haan said.

"People became so accustomed to low energy that they made long-term decisions based on that. People were driving big cars, people were living hours away from (work) in some cases," De Haan said.

By the middle of 2008, USA Today reported, oil prices spiked past $147 a barrel due to rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, as well as supply disruptions in Nigeria and Brazil. That’s when prices hit their peak above $4 a gallon.

Then came the crash, followed by another recovery under President Barack Obama’s administration that sent prices back toward the $4 mark in 2011 and 2012.

In November 2014, in order to compete with production in other countries like the U.S., OPEC changed its policy to produce as much oil as possible and flood the market, which led to very low prices. Those low prices continued into the Trump years, until OPEC once again adjusted its policy to raise prices.

Why gas prices are up now

Then in March 2020, the pandemic hit and oil demand plummeted.

Under President Donald Trump, prices ranged from around $1.80 (near at the start of the pandemic) to $2.90.

"Because Americans stayed home, the price of oil plummeted into negative territory for the first time ever," De Haan said, referring to the price of crude oil futures contracts. "Demand for gasoline was down 60%, and along with it, the price of oil crashed."

That led to job cuts in the oil industry and a decline in production. But demand recovered quickly because of optimism surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, De Haan said, and producers haven’t been able to ramp back up as quickly, leading to another spike in prices that continues today.

"Was that Trump’s fault? No. Was that Biden’s fault? No," De Haan said. "The vaccines held the key to an increase in demand."

After PolitiFact’s inquiry, Occupy Democrats modified its post to add that point: "The truth is that presidents have little if ANY effect on gas prices, which are dependent on the price of crude oil, which is determined by global supply and demand. High gas prices in 2008 weren't really Bush's fault, just like rising prices today aren't Biden's fault."

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: Half-true

An Occupy Democrats Facebook post said gasoline prices were "way higher" under Republican President George W. Bush than today under President Joe Biden.

Prices did peak during the Bush administration, but they also were very low at other points during his presidency.

More broadly, experts say, movements in gas prices have little to do with who’s president. Rather, they reflect the balance between global supply and demand, and the global supply is largely determined by OPEC.

Occupy Democrats modified its post to add context, but our rating is based on the original post.

We rate this claim Half True.

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