- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gas prices have soared to a national average of $3.82 a gallon, hitting a high of $4.35 per gallon in some parts of the country.

There’s increasing speculation among oil experts that prices could approach $5 a gallon, a development that would squeeze consumer spending, sandbag a still-vulnerable economy, and further threaten President Obama’s dwindling chances of a second term.

But at this point in the election cycle, there’s very little if anything he can do about it, energy analysts say.

“There’s nothing the president can do that’s going to alleviate the gasoline price rise or reduce oil imports by another 1 million barrels per day,” says Charles K. Ebinger, director of the energy security initiative at the Brookings Institution.

If this election is going to be about the economy - and Rick Santorum is the only one who doesn’t believe this - then the price of gas may be the most important statistic in the 2012 election, next to who can win 270 electoral votes Nov. 6.

The Federal Reserve Board said Tuesday they expect higher gas prices to boost inflation, and there is growing evidence of that. The Labor Department told us Thursday that the producer price index rose 0.4 percent last month.

The Obama administration maintains the “core” inflation index, which excludes food and gas prices, is mostly tame, and says food prices even declined somewhat. Try telling that one to ordinary consumers who’ve seen their weekly paychecks stretched to the breaking point at the checkout counter and the gas pump.

Someone is to blame for this, and voters know who that is. Nearly 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll (up from 53 percent last month).

Nearly two-thirds said they don’t like the way he’s handling energy policies, either, particularly gas prices.

Former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who raised taxes on Michigan’s struggling economy when it was in the pits of recession, thinks it is “totally ridiculous” to blame the president for the rise in oil prices.

But John Engler, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable, begs to differ. He points to a long list of political actions Mr. Obama has taken in the past three years that has brought us to this crisis.

Among them: denying oil exploration on U.S. public lands in Alaska and elsewhere where there are large reserves that would boost domestic oil supplies and reduce gas prices; imposing moratoria on deep-water drilling in the western Gulf of Mexico because of the BP disaster and slowing new permits ever since; declaring Atlantic and Pacific coasts off-limits to offshore drilling to pander to his liberal base; and blocking TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline to the Gulf Coast, which would transport 700,000 barrels of oil per day.

Mr. Engler expects higher gas prices to be a major election issue this year. “It’s real simple. I mean, gas prices have gone up 100 percent basically from his Inauguration Day to the present time. It’s not the only issue, but it is a marker,” he said recently on the ABC News show “This Week.”

But it isn’t only Mr. Obama’s Republican critics who are flogging him for a failed three-year record on the economy.

Several weeks ago, the New York Times’ arch-liberal economics columnist Paul Krugman made it clear he was not impressed with the economy’s nascent recovery.

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