An unrefined message on oil

Our secretary of energy, Samuel Bodman, acknowledged this week that there may be an energy crisis in America. He says it may be “a number of years — two to three years” before oil prices level off or even decline.

Our secretary of energy, Samuel Bodman, acknowledged this week that there may be an energy crisis in America. He says it may be “a number of years — two to three years” before oil prices level off or even decline.

Delivered in his deadpan manner, this observation illustrates just how tone-deaf the administration, and to a large part the Republican Party, has become to the real concerns of Americans.

I’m sure that the $100 rebate sounded like a great idea early last week. The overwhelming reaction of voters was that the proposal sounded ridiculous to them. This wasn’t just a few liberal media commentators criticizing tiny, temporary, pandering symbolism, it was a genuine grassroots backlash, a message from the people that this was not the response they were looking for. At few times in history since Marie Antoinette came up with her “let them eat cake” plan has a nation’s leadership seemed so out of touch with its citizens.

In my business, you often encounter clients who just don’t seem to get that everyone does not share their view of the world. The oil industry’s response to rising prices and rising concerns has been a classic example of that syndrome.

The American Petroleum Institute spent a small fortune on advertising with charts showing their profits are in line with those of other industries. Sorry folks, that just doesn’t pass the smell test with consumers, voters and even opinion leaders. Though you may be able to prove it with some complicated accounting, everyone knows that Exxon’s $36 billion in profits are the highest in history for any American company. I’ve sat through too many focus groups to believe that message will ever fly. In fact, it is counterproductive. It makes big oil’s audience even more suspicious of its motives.

On Tuesday ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson came to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican leaders and discuss the oil crisis. His comments on leaving may make stockholders smile (I am one, which gives me mixed emotions every time I stop at a gas pump) but will do nothing to endear the industry to consumers.

There is little lawmakers can do to combat rising energy costs, Tillerson said. “We just have to ask people to make sure they are using energy wisely. … Be efficient. Don’t waste it.”

Now that is sensible advice, but the subtext is that this is a consumer problem, not a government or oil company problem. While it may be true that the soaring cost of gasoline is a result of many complex geopolitical factors, that is not what the American people want to hear just now.

Mr. Tillerson and the petroleum industry would be well-served spending a little time on message refinement. That won’t lower the cost of gasoline, but it could lower the frustration level of consumers a touch and lessen the chances that their Republican friends will be voted from office in November.

Someone is going to pay the political price for gasoline prices, and right now it is the GOP. This is, after all, the administration that promised Iraq oil would pay for both the war and the reconstruction. But we’ve lost a million barrels a day of Iraq oil production, and it will take at least two years to build back to capacity once that nation has a stable government. If that war really was about oil, as some opponents claim, we’ve done a worse job achieving that goal than we have with establishing a democracy.

Voters are looking for someone to blame for this crisis, and they are reluctant to blame the person in the mirror. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are both oilmen, voters are increasingly saying. They cite executive salaries, huge bonuses and record profits as the cause for higher prices at the pump. Can there be an oil conspiracy movie far behind?

All these factors have driven President Bush’s approval rating to an all-time low of 33 percent in the latest CNN poll. Only 17 percent of voters think he’s doing a decent job of handling the oil crisis. Meanwhile, Democrats are reaping the benefits of voter frustration and suspicion about the White House oil connection.

Democrats now have a nearly 2-1 advantage in handling the oil crisis. If they come up with realistic sounding proposals to bring down costs, encourage conservation and swiftly develop alternative fuels, they’ll have a message voters will be only too happy to deliver in November.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.