Obama Seeks to Reassure Voters on Gas Prices

Worried that rising costs could doom his reelection and battered by Republicans, the president rehashes his energy policy.


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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.

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.

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Coral Davenport is an energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

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