Worried that rising costs could doom his reelection and battered by Republicans, the president rehashes his energy policy.
President Obama is in full crisis-control mode as gasoline prices continue to rise. On Thursday at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., he gave his third speech on energy in two weeks, reiterating the same points he has tried to hammer home to voters since his State of the Union address: He understands the pain high gas prices inflict on household incomes, but the high prices aren't his fault -- they're set on a global market, by Middle Eastern unrest and growing demand in China; there's no quick fix, no silver bullet; the solutions are long-term and complex -- conservation, drilling, renewable energy; and his Republican opponents who promise quick fixes through drilling are making false promises.
"If there's one thing we're thinking a lot about these days, it's energy -- how to use less and produce more right here in the United States of America. And with gas prices spiking all across the country, we're getting another reminder of just how important that is right now," he said.
"And every time prices start to go up -- especially in an election year -- politicians dust off their three-point plans for $2 gasoline. They head down to the pump, make sure a few cameras are following them, and start acting like they can wave a magic wand and you'll have cheap gas forever. Sound familiar?" In the familiar jab at his Republican opponents -- particularly Newt Gingrich, who has promised to bring down gas prices to $2.50 per gallon if elected, Obama said: "Well here's the thing: We know better. You know better. There's no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to high gas prices. We know there's no silver bullet. And anyone who tells you otherwise isn't really looking for a solution -- they're probably just looking to ride the political wave of the moment."
The problem is that for many voters, Obama's more detailed, nuanced, long-term message on energy is harder to wrap their heads around than the GOP's short, simple idea that more drilling equals lower prices. So Obama is using repetition in hopes of drilling his own message home. Besides the speeches, the White House also released an "energy progress report" this week aimed at injecting the message into more media platforms. Obama followed that up with live interviews with local television anchors in electoral battleground states.
Don't expect the messaging to let up: The writing is on the wall that high gas prices are hurting Obama. Historically, presidential approval ratings have fallen as gas prices have climbed, and the trend is playing out now as it has in the past.
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Gasoline prices have soared this year from an average of $3.29 in the first week of January to $3.82 on Thursday. Obama's poll numbers have fallen commensurately: Last month, the CBS News/New York Times poll registered a 50 percent approval rating for Obama. Now, the same poll shows the president's approval rating at 41 percent. The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed a similar downward pattern but a smaller order of magnitude. In one month, Obama's approval rating in that survey fell from 50 percent to 46 percent. A March 1 Pew Research Center poll found that more Americans (18 percent ) blame Obama for high gasoline prices than any other entity.
The question remains whether Obama's nuanced, long-term talking points can break through to the American public. Bill Burton, a former White House press secretary who is now a senior strategist with Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, said voters will come around to Obama's energy explanations.
"The key to the way Obama messages is to explain," Burton said. "Voters are more informed than politicians give them credit for."
Both Obama and Republicans are running offense on energy, which Republicans clearly see as a winning issue.
As soon as Obama finished speaking the Republican National Committee held a "rebuttal" conference call with reporters with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "We as a country should at least be firing all the bullets we do have," Jindal retorted. "The administration's actions to date have contributed to rising energy prices."
Obama has been saying a lot lately that domestic oil production has soared under his watch. That's true: the U.S. is producing more oil than at any time in the last eight years, and now imports less than half its oil from foreign countries, for the first time in eight years. What Obama fails to mention, and Republicans want to spotlight, is that much of that drilling is taking place due to leases finalized during the George W. Bush administration, and much of it takes place on private land, with little action by the federal government.
"The president likes to take credit for this," said Jindal.
Republicans also like to pounce on Obama's repeated call to roll back $4 billion in tax breaks for the oil industry. In the fight over gas prices, Democrats have sought to make Big Oil -- which has close ties to the GOP, and which profits handsomely from the high prices -- the villain. The Pew poll showed that while the 18 percent of Americans blame the president for high gas prices, oil companies come in second at 13 percent. But Republicans point out, accurately, that repealing Big Oil's tax breaks won't reduce the price at the pump.
Economists, however, point out that Obama is by and large correct. The price of gasoline is indeed set by the price of oil on the global market, which no president can control. It's possible, however, that Obama may be in for some oil relief. According to the Energy Information Administration, the price of gasoline is expected to peak at a national average of $4.02 for a gallon of regular in May, and then slowly decline through the rest of the year -- barring, of course, outside events such as a conflict in Iran.