Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum blames President Obama’s "radical environmentalist policies" for pushing gasoline prices to near record highs that could undermine the economic recovery. Newt Gingrich, another contender, says there’s no doubt that Obama actually wants higher gas prices, and that administration policy “has been outrageously anti-American energy.”
And during a closed-door meeting last week, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio ordered his GOP colleagues to return home for the President’s Day recess and stoke their constituents anger about rising gas prices. “This debate is a debate we want to have,” Mr. Boehner told rank and file members, the New York Times reported.
For a while, it looked as if Obama had finally gotten past the worst of the nation’s economic crisis and was basking in his surging public approval ratings. What’s more, Obama and his aides have boasted that U.S. domestic oil production has increased every year since he took office and is now at its highest level in eight years. But all of that could change in the wake of surging gas prices, that have jumped 29 cents per gallon since December, according to the Energy Information Administration.
White House officials are bracing for a Republican assault to try to exploit consumer anger and frustration over $4 to $5 per gallon gas and renew their contentions that Obama’s economic and energy policies are not working. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania governor, Gingrich, the former House Speaker from Georgia, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney all are likely to make those points tonight during the latest GOP presidential debate in Arizona.
“They want higher energy prices. They want to push their radical agenda on the public,” Santorum said at a campaign event last week, accusing Democrats of pushing alternatives to oil. “We need a president who is on the side of affordable energy.”
There are a lot of factors contributing to rising gas prices, including the heightened tensions in the Middle East, Iran’s retaliatory actions on oil exports to the West, and a volatile global economy, but that’s hard for the administration to explain to irate consumers who are spending more and more to fill up their tanks.
“There are no magic solutions to rising oil prices and the pain that Americans feel at the pump,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday. “The President is very aware of the impact that the global price of oil has on families.”
The White House has good reason to be concerned about the potential political fallout from rising gas prices. The last five times that gas prices spiked during a presidential campaign, the incumbent party lost the election. That happened in 1976, when Republican Gerald Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter; in 1980, when Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan; in 1992, when Republican George H.W. Bush lost to Democrat Bill Clinton; in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore lost to Republican George W. Bush, and in 2008, when Republican John McCain lost to Obama.
Obama is scheduled to unveil new proposals for increasing domestic energy production and stem the cycle of fuel price spikes in a speech Friday at the University of Miami. The president has boasted that over the past three years, the U.S. has opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, that the government is investing heavily in alternative clean energy development and production, and that new automobile fuel efficiency standards will greatly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
During his State of the Union speech last month, he announced he was directing the government to open more than 75 percent of potential offshore oil and gas reserves to drilling – including a 38-million acre lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico scheduled for this summer. According to administration figures, over two billion barrels of American crude oil were produced in 2010, the highest level since 2003.
Yesterday, while touting passage of the extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut, the president said that it would help the middle class to cover rising gas prices: “It means $40 extra in their paycheck,” he said. “And that $40 helps to pay the rent, the groceries, the rising cost of gas -- which is on a lot of people's minds right now.
Nonetheless, Republicans have blasted Obama’s energy policies from the start, saying he was more concerned about imposing tough environmental restrictions than pressing for more domestic energy and gas production to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Congressional Republican leaders have had a field day criticizing the Department of Energy’s clean energy loan programs after disclosure that the government lost a $528 million loan to Solyndra, a politically connected California solar panel company that went bankrupt. And the GOP has argued that the administration’s repeated efforts to impose a temporary moratorium on off-shore drilling after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has curtailed production.
But the smoking gun, if there is one, is Obama’s repeated action blocking construction of TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. Romney and others claim the decision will prevent increased domestic oil production and cost the economy thousands of construction jobs.
White House officials insist the president had no choice but to block construction of the pipeline until the State Department and Nebraska state officials have ample time to review the pipeline permit application and proposed route. Regardless, the pipeline has more to do with the future than the country’s current economic woes, which is why the spike in gas prices offers a fat target to Republicans, who will hammer the president with various permutations of the “drill baby drill” mantra from now through November.
A gallon of gas had dropped to $1.89 when Obama took office in 2009, in large part because of the fall in oil demand caused by the financial crisis, and has almost doubled since. Patrick De Haan, a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, an organization that closely monitors the price of gasoline, said, “Now the economy is in recovery, and it’s not a shock that prices have made a recovery as well. And little of that can be blamed on a president.”