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Pains at the pump

Americans are giving the economy its worst rating in 16 years. Not since 1992 have so many rated the condition of the economy so poorly, and never before during those years have more people been as pessimistic about the economic future. It’s no wonder the economy — as predicted here last year — has emerged as the central political issue of 2008.

While economists use complex formulas to derive their assessments, voters look at a few simple indicators, with the price of gasoline fueling economic discontent.

An AP/Yahoo/Knowledge Networks poll asked voters how important 19 issues were to them personally. Only the economy overall outranked gas prices. Indeed, gas prices even eclipsed Iraq, with 59 percent saying gas prices were extremely important to them compared to 48 percent who said the same about the war. Over two-thirds regarded the economy as extremely important.

Seventy-one percent of Americans say gas price increases are causing them financial hardship — just one point below the record. Sixty percent say they have “cut back significantly on … household spending because of higher gas prices.” Half have canceled a trip they have taken regularly in recent years. Focus group participants complain that they can no longer afford their commute to the jobs that are paying them too little.

Not surprisingly, middle- and lower-income Americans are even more likely to be hard hit. More than seven in 10 of those who make under $75,000 have been forced to cut back significantly on other household expenses because of spiraling gas prices.

Voters are as generous in parceling out blame as oil companies are in rewarding their CEOs. Oil companies themselves are singled out as the prime culprits by the largest number of Americans, with most thinking it is greed and avarice, not market conditions, that account for recent price spikes.

Just 13 percent believe oil companies are making “reasonable” profits, while 83 percent maintain the oil companies are making “too much.” Harris finds a mere 3 percent of Americans believing oil companies are honest, putting them in exactly the same place as tobacco companies. Over half want more regulation of the petroleum behemoths.

George Bush and his Republicans also shoulder a large share of the responsibility. By giving huge tax breaks to oil companies while their profits balloon, instead of investing in alternative energy, the GOP has sacrificed the economic well-being of the American people on the altar of Big Oil.

Iraq is also seen as a key contributing factor in gas price hikes by two-thirds — another cross for the GOP to bear.

Economic dislocation at home is another of the many prices we are paying for a failed policy in Iraq.

Republicans are trying to play catch-up on this issue, but the American people, wiser than the GOP, recognize we cannot drill our way out of this crisis. By 2 to 1, Americans reject the Republican solution, preferring increased conservation to increased production. Add the search for alternatives to the range of possibilities and support for increased production declines further. That’s in part why, even with gas approaching $4 per gallon, most voters continue to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Americans understand that, properly stimulated, our technical know-how and can-do spirit will unleash a wave of invention that can solve our energy problems, while also creating jobs, increasing our national security and protecting our environment. Drilling won’t save us; inventing will.

All elections are at least in part about the economy. Trying to win a third consecutive term in the White House while Americans are reeling from a sagging economy and escalating gas prices will be extraordinarily difficult for the GOP. They won’t be helped by advancing antiquated solutions that voters oppose.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.