- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2011

Consumers’ pain at the gas pump will likely be shared by President Obama at the polls in 2012 and could cost him a second term unless energy prices take a drastic turn for the better in the next 18 months.

“Energy prices should be the Achilles’ heel for Obama,” said Scott Wheeler, executive director of a conservative political action committee.

The average gasoline pump price across the country is $3.621 per gallon, the Energy Information Administration reported. Prices in some parts of the country are already topping $4 a gallon.

And the uncertain global situation isn’t helping.

“Unrest in the Middle East and Japan’s loss of nuclear-powered electricity add pressure to oil prices that were already growing along with the world economy,” Heritage Foundation energy economist David W. Kreutzer told The Washington Times. “While the U.S. only generates 1 percent of its electricity from oil, Japan uses 9 percent and will need more to fuel standby generators and to replace lost nuclear production.”

Analysts see a perfect political storm hitting when it comes to energy supply and demand. China and India, with booming economies, are suddenly world-class consumers of oil and other energy sources. The unrest in the Middle East and the bad news out of Japan have unsettled the supply picture even more, a disruption being reflected in prices at the pump in Wichita and Altoona.

At the same time, Republicans think they have found a potent political issue in the environmentally sensitive Mr. Obama’s decision to put a hold on new domestic energy production virtually from his first day in office.

While polls suggest gas-pump prices loom large in voter calculations, Mr. Obama’s only move to try to contain the impact of the issue so far came in a March 11 news conference, in which he drilled home the idea that partisan politics and not production is the root of today’s energy woes.

“Every few years, gas prices go up, politicians pull out the same political playbook and nothing changes,” Mr. Obama said. “I think the American people are tired of talk. We’ve got to work together, Democrats, Republicans and everybody in between.”

But critics say such above-the-fray talk is not useful when the government has the power to act.

“Our own policies that restrict the development of U.S. oil production don’t help,” said Heritage’s Mr. Kreutzer. “Republicans already have their ad teams working on TV and radio spots and print ads that will make just that point, in as many ways as possible.”

Some on the right claim to see Mr. Obama’s electoral pain being eased by a sympathetic news media as the 2012 elections approach.

“You won’t have the dominant media culture show people hurting at the pump and having to fish change out of their ashtray to pay for gas, not to the extent the media would bleed over the consumers’ plight if a Republican were president,” said Mr. Wheeler.

Mr. Wheeler, of the National Republican Trust PAC, and some analysts predict that the Federal Reserve Board will come to the administration’s aid and ease the sting of higher energy and food prices by printing more dollars to stimulate the economy. But it’s unlikely Mr. Obama can avoid all political fallout from the surge in gas prices.

Mr. Obama’s vulnerability is of his own making, critics say. The president, expressing environmental and other policy concerns, has blocked or slowed U.S. oil drilling on land and sea. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been making that an issue virtually since the president assumed office.

“At the very least, we should be drilling in the areas where we do have access,” Heritage Foundation Policy Analyst Nick Loris said. “If the administration continues to slow-walk permits both onshore and offshore that could immediately increase supply, the Obama administration would shoulder the blame for that.”

Unhappy consumers tend to blame incumbents, and the mixture of rising world demand and troubled world supply in the energy market spells political peril for a president running for a second term.

“A rule of thumb is that if the U.S. economy is growing at 2 percent or less, the incumbent in the White House is in political trouble,” said Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow at B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies. “If the unemployment rate is more than 7 percent, the incumbent is in trouble. If the inflation rate is 5 percent or greater, he is in trouble.”

By those standards, Mr. Obama is in trouble on the jobs front, in an iffy position on the growth front — the U.S. economy grew at an estimated 2.8 percent in the last quarter of 2011 — and on shaky ground on the inflation front, as consumer prices in February were up 2.1 percent from the previous year in the government’s latest report. Few think those indicators point to an inflation of Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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