Gas Prices Doomed Carter—Will They Doom Obama?

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Obama's the first Democrat to face down rising gas prices in an election year since Carter. But he has advantages his unfortunate predecessor didn't. 

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Cars line up for gasoline during the 1979 fuel shortage / Image: Wikipedia

Gas prices are up, and there's a Democrat in the Oval Office seeking reelection. What year is it?

For Politico, 2012 is 1980 all over again, and the newspaper is now pondering whether President Obama will end up "owning" high gas prices much the way Jimmy Carter did by the end of his term in the White House.

It's certainly possible that, as fuel costs inevitably rise in the coming months, enough cash-strapped voters will start casting blame on the president to cripple his reelection chances. You never know. But economically, comparing Carter's dire predicament, which he notoriously mishandled, with Obama's is silly, in part because you can't look at gas prices in a vacuum. The late 1970s were an economic nightmare in which fuel costs were one of several scourges. Today, we're looking at a strengthening recovery that's better equipped to withstand a bit of pain at the pump. 

Here are four big reasons to ignore those Carter comparisons:

No. 1: The U.S. isn't in a fight to the death with inflation

If there's a single graph that captures the misery of America's economy in the 1970s and early 1980s, it's the one below. That blue line? It's the non-core inflation rate, which includes the cost of goods like food and energy which get left out of other measures. Notice that in late 1978, when the Iranian revolution helped send oil prices soaring, prices were already rising at more than 7 percent a year. U.S. policy makers had been trying and failing to slay inflation for most of the decade, and the sudden shock of high oil prices helped set the rate completely out of control. Expensive crude made gas, as well as consumer goods, more expensive. That sent workers bargaining for higher wages, which made prices to rise further. Presto chango: an inflationary spiral. 

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But it got worse. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's early, haphazard attempts to slow down runaway prices and save the value of the dollar led to sky high interest rates, which sent the economy tumbling into recession by the summer of 1980 -- right in the middle of Carter's re-election campaign. By July, unemployment topped out at 7.9 percent (it eventually dropped back to 7.1 percent by November). 

Today, inflation is just about dead last on America's list of potential economic problems. Workers also aren't in much of a position to bargain for higher pay based on their weekly gas tab. So high gas prices aren't going to lead to the same terrifying wage-price spiral that, along with some clumsy tinkering by the Fed, demolished the economy under Carter. 

No. 2: We don't have ridiculous regulations on selling gas 

The long lines of drivers waiting outside gas stations for a chance to fill up might be the iconic image of Carter-era economic malaise. But the gas shortages that yielded those lines weren't a direct result of high prices. Rather, they were the produced of an ill-designed system of price and distribution controls, which led gas stations to sell off what limited fuel they had on a first-come-first-serve basis, then close up shop early. To get a sense of how horribly the government's regulation distorted the market for gasoline, check out this 1979 paper from the Brookings Institute. Among their myriad unintended consequences, the controls actually made it more profitable for refineries to stash away gasoline supplies and sell them at a later date, even if there was an immediate shortage. Thankfully, those kinds of regulations went out of style along with disco. 

No. 3: Iran (probably) isn't going to stop selling oil 

One of the eeriest similarities between today and the Carter era is the role Iran is playing in sending up gas prices. Then, it was fallout from the Iranian revolution. Today, it's uncertainty generated by U.S. and European attempts to stop Tehran's nuclear program. But there are big, gaping differences between the challenges of of 33 years ago and today.

In December of 1978, following the revolution, Iran's new leaders halted all oil shipments (they resumed a small amount the following March). At the time, the country was the world's second largest oil exporter. The market panicked, and the price of crude increased 150 percent over the coming year. Gasoline prices followed, jumping 55 percent in six months. 

The current confrontation between Iran and the West is scary, yes. But unless it erupts into outright war, chances are we won't see similar supply disruptions compared to what happened in 1979. The U.S. has levied sanctions on Tehran aimed at limiting it's ability to sell oil. But as I wrote yesterday, they're not intended to take all of their crude off the market. Iran, for its part, is reportedly so desperate to to sell oil that it's offering barter deals. 

No. 4: We're used to high gas prices  

There's no question about it: When oil prices rise rapidly, they can hurt the economy. But when it comes to determining just how bad the damage will be, it's important to look at where oil prices have been in the recent past. James Hamilton, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has come up with a formula for doing this that I call the rule of three. He's found that when oil prices quickly spike to a new three-year high, they can cause a damaging shock to the economy. That's because both businesses and consumers suddenly have to rapidly adjust their budgets, and often drastically cut spending. The rule of three is not a hard and fast law, but more a decent rule of thumb. It happens to describe what happened in 1979 fairly well. At the time, the only frame of reference anybody had for an oil crisis was the 1973 OPEC embargo. Nobody expected a repeat.   

While oil prices are rising pretty quickly today, they're still close to where they reached during the Libyan revolution last year. They could go higher -- I'm not going to try and predict -- but at this point, even if it's painful, most Americans have an idea of how to cope with higher fuel costs. Back in 1979, it was still relatively new and frightening. Today, it's old hat. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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