President Obama's poll numbers are up and the country's unemployment figures are down — but $4 gas poses a potent threat to the incumbent's re-election bid, polls show.
Voters are giving Mr. Obama an emphatic thumbs down for his handling of gas prices — 68 percent disapprove of his response to the problem in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll.
The White House and Mr. Obama's re-election team are acutely aware of the political danger. The president has given seven speeches in March alone on energy and gas prices in an attempt to convince the public that there is no "silver bullet" solution.
"The Obama campaign knows that high gas prices can sink his presidency," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "They are throwing the kitchen sink at this problem through advertising, campaign appearances and high-profile speeches."
The latest salvo from Team Obama is a TV ad by Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting the president's re-election. The ad portrays GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney as a tool of the U.S. oil industry. "The money they make from high gas prices is going right into Mitt Romney's campaign," says the ad, which is airing in eight battleground states including Florida and Ohio.
On Tuesday, the administration unveiled procedures to expedite drilling on public lands, an area where Republicans and the oil industry have pressed Mr. Obama to boost oil production.
With gas nationwide now averaging $3.92 a gallon, polls indicate the rising price at the pump poses a real threat to what had been Mr. Obama's steadily rising overall job-approval ratings — he improved from 40 percent in August to 48 percent this week.
The risk posed by a continued jump in the cost of gasoline is a bit of deja vu for Mr. Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on voter anger over $4-per-gallon gasoline and took office in 2009 when the price at the pump was about $1.90 per gallon in the depths of the recession.
In a Gallup poll last week, 65 percent of respondents said they worry "a great deal" about gas prices. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents all disapproved of Mr. Obama's handling of the issue.
The president has emphasized that he is promoting a variety of energy sources, including renewable fuels and solar energy, to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. He also has railed against Congress for failing to end $4 billion in annual tax breaks for oil companies.
Republicans have countered that his policies are beholden to environmentalists, resulting in costly debacles such as the government's $500 million loan guarantee for the defunct Solyndra solar energy company, and in perceived shortsighted decisions such as the rejection of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The president also has continued bans on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, offshore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines and in some oil-rich fields in Alaska.
Some analysts say that Mr. Obama, with only seven months before the election, has few options besides rhetoric. Even if Mr. Obama had an effective plan for lowering energy prices, they say, it takes years for such policies to reach a level where consumers would notice.
"It's an unfortunate reality," said Catrina Rorke, director of energy policy at the American Action Forum. "OPEC controls the price of gas, growing demand in China controls the price. Tradition states the guy in office is going to be blamed. Unless he can win the rhetorical argument, it's not good news for his job security."
In making that rhetorical case, Mr. Obama has argued that domestic oil production has increased in each of his three years in office and is at its highest level in eight years. "We are drilling all over the place," he told an audience in New Mexico last week during a four-state tour to promote his energy policies.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called the trip a "farcical, high-octane public relations tour."
Ms. Rorke said the president's claims about rising production are somewhat disingenuous, because production today was affected by federal policy enacted five to 10 years ago, and because drilling on private land — controlled by states — has increased dramatically. Production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia has soared in the past two years.
"On public land, certainly nothing that Obama has done has increased production," she said. "He hasn't been in office long enough for his policies to actually create more oil. On private land is where we've seen the greatest development, and that's because of hydraulic fracturing. States are regulating that."
Another option available to Mr. Obama is dipping into the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which holds more than 700 million barrels of oil, about one month's worth of consumption in the U.S. Ms. Rorke said it would send a signal that Mr. Obama is "willing to take action," but the effect on gas prices likely would be negligible.
Mr. Bonjean said the president and his advisers, in saturating his schedule with speeches on energy, are deploying a strategy that isn't likely to work.
"They're trying to pivot to get away from it being the president's fault," he said. "What it does is link high gasoline prices to the president. Nothing can beat the wince of families at the gasoline pump when they have to pay the bill. You can't get over that."
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