Gasoline prices haven't gotten much attention amid all the other bad economic news for Democrats heading into a final week of campaigning, but the price per gallon has climbed nearly 15 cents since Labor Day - a surprising jump, given that prices usually plummet before an election.
The cost of a gallon of gas has eclipsed the $3 mark in several parts of the country and clocks in nationally at $2.82, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). That's up from $2.68 on Sept. 6, and overall about $1 higher than the week of Jan. 26, 2009, when President Obama took office and the per-gallon price was $1.81.
Analysts say the surge in pump prices defies historical trends that call for a drop-off after the Labor Day holiday, which signals the end of the summer driving season and the traditional dip ahead of the November election season.
"We're puzzled by it," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's becoming increasingly expensive, and the great anomaly is that never happens before an election - prices always fall."
Nearly 70 percent of the cost of gas is determined by the global price for a barrel of crude oil, which currently is priced at $81, according to the EIA, and experts say there aren't many levers the president can pull to change prices dramatically in the short term.
Still, that doesn't mean it couldn't hurt politically - particularly on top of a 9.6 percent national unemployment rate that's a millstone around the neck of Democratic incumbents across the country.
Even though the issue has been out of the news, 56 percent of Americans say gas prices are "extremely important," according to a mid-October Associated Press-GfK poll that also found 29 percent rated prices at the pump as "moderately important" while 15 percent said they're of little or no importance. Americans are split in their assessment of how Mr. Obama is handling gas prices, with 49 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving of his performance, that same survey found. Among likely voters, just 46 percent approve of his track record on gas prices and 51 percent disapprove.
That could be because voters are used to pre-election price drops.
In 2008, prices plummeted nearly 80 cents between Labor Day and the week of Oct. 20, and in 2006, they fell by about 50 cents over the same period. In 2007 and 2009, by contrast, prices held about steady.
Mr. Obama, a vocal advocate for clean-energy technologies, has routinely stressed the need to transition the U.S. to a renewable-energy-use pattern as a means to improve the environment and also seize on new business opportunities in the burgeoning sector. He pushed for home weatherization credits in the stimulus package, and his Environmental Protection Agency has issued tighter fuel-economy standards, for example.
It's not clear if the Obama administration is considering any short-term fixes to rising gas prices. A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, which manages federal lands that would be leased for oil exploration, said that question isn't under the purview of the agency, and an Energy Department spokeswoman referred questions to the EPA, which did not return a message seeking comment.
Former President George W. Bush faced strong criticism and anemic approval ratings on his handling of the situation as gas prices eclipsed the $3 mark, reaching $4 in June 2008 before he and Congress lifted moratoriums on expanding offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Supporters said lifting presidential and congressional moratoriums sent a signal to markets that in turn led to a sharp decline in prices.
In Mr. Obama's case, analysts said it's too soon to see any fallout from the BP oil spill or the new offshore drilling moratorium Mr. Obama imposed and then lifted. Instead, they attributed the rise in the cost of crude oil - and thus the price of gas - to strong demand from Chinese and other Asian economies that are showing stronger signs of rebounding from the recession than the U.S., where demand has fallen amid continued unemployment.
"The product impacts in the Gulf Coast from [the BP] incident are probably more in the five-to-ten-year time period," said Laurie Falter, an oil industry economist for the EIA, which collects and analyzes energy data. "If it's going to have an effect, it's going to be on investment going forward, and that's a slower time scale."
Free-market critics of Mr. Obama's energy policies say it's only a matter of time before consumers start to feel the pinch.
Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, an industry-backed think tank, said Mr. Obama's decision in early April to open up some new areas for oil and gas exploration while canceling a slew of Alaskan lease sales will decrease domestic oil supplies and increase U.S. imports of oil.
"Their view is the best way to reduce consumption [of fossil fuels] is to make it more expensive, and then people will use alternatives, which they consider to be morally superior," Mr. Kish said. "The long-term consequences of this are going to be pretty significant. We're not going to stop using oil, we're just going to use less of our own oil and more of somebody else's."
Mr. Obama appears to have accepted the political reality that a "cap-and-trade" approach to global warming is not likely to happen, telling National Journal in an interview published Monday that he'll instead work on "more bite-sized pieces" like renewable energy standards.
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