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Oil prices are greasing Bush's slide

The Texas oilmen running the White House must be mystified. High oil prices always meant good times.

The Texas oilmen running the White House must be mystified. High oil prices always meant good times.

Now those high prices are haunting George Bush and Dick Cheney, making their lives almost as miserable as they are ours. Gas prices have joined healthcare costs as the central symbols of the economic squeeze Americans feel.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans say gas prices are causing them financial hardship — a five-year high. Indeed, since June 2004, there has been a 20-point increase in the number of Americans claiming such a financial hardship, with 10 points of that increase coming since May 2005.

Using a different question, CBS found nearly two-thirds saying higher prices for gasoline affect them “a lot” personally, while an additional quarter say higher prices affect them “some.” Seventy percent report having “cut down on the amount of driving [they] do” as a result of recent increases in gas prices, while only 29 percent have not.

Voters are as generous in parceling out blame as oil companies are in rewarding their CEOs. Americans are most likely to blame oil companies for high gas prices, but the Bush administration also shoulders a large share of responsibility. More than 8 in 10 (84 percent) believe that oil companies deserve a “great deal” or a moderate amount of the blame for the price increases. However, 62 percent believe the Bush administration deserves at least moderate blame, with 38 percent attributing a high level of culpability to the administration. Americans are also more likely to blame congressional Republicans than Democrats.

Most Americans believe that gasoline companies are price-gouging. According to Gallup, more than 3 in 4 believe that “the gas companies are taking advantage of the situation and charging unfair prices,” while only 18 percent believe that “the gas companies are charging a fair price given the conditions caused by the hurricane.” Americans displayed similar attitudes in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, in which 72 percent said “oil companies and gas dealers are taking unfair advantage of the situation.”

President Bush is widely perceived to have substantial control over gasoline prices and is broadly viewed to be mismanaging this task. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) believe that “the price of gasoline is something a president can do a lot about,” while only 27 percent believe that gas prices are “beyond the president’s control.”

Because of the power Bush is perceived to wield over rapidly escalating gas prices, Americans find his performance desperately wanting. Only 22 percent believe that “the Bush administration has done all it could to keep the price of gas from rising after Hurricane Katrina” while 71 percent believe he could have done more. A Gallup poll found a mere 20 percent approving of Bush’s handling of gas prices, compared to a huge 76 percent who disapprove. While Bush’s performance ratings lag on most issues, they are, by far, the worst for handling gas prices.

There is little doubt that the fortune we are paying to fill our tanks has a direct bearing on the president’s own political fortunes. More people say they are following news about gas prices closely than are paying attention to news about the war in Iraq. Gas prices are for many a personal economic indicator much easier to follow than the bevy of statistics released by the government. No wonder Stuart Thiel has shown that changing gas prices are strongly related to movement in Bush’s job rating.

Doing something to control rising gas prices does not come naturally to oilmen. But without action, gas prices, like Iraq will continue to eat away at the president’s already badly damaged image.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.