White House seeks to deflect GOP criticism over high gas prices

President Obama will move aggressively this week to deflect blame for rising gas prices.

Republicans are accusing the administration of exacerbating pain at the pump with policies that raise energy costs.

Obama will visit the University of Miami on Thursday to discuss steps the administration has taken to increase domestic oil and gas production, senior administration officials said Tuesday.  

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He will highlight the fact that production is up and imports have fallen, and will note additional steps the nation can take to deal with higher gas prices, the officials said. 

The Miami event highlights the danger Obama faces from higher gas prices, which tend to climb into the spring and summer but are already well above where they were at this time in 2011, a year that saw prices reach their highest levels since records were set in the summer of 2008.

Higher gas prices could threaten the president’s newfound political momentum. Obama has seen his approval ratings rise over the past few months as Republicans have hurt their brand with a lengthy and divisive GOP primary and missteps in the battle with Obama over the payroll tax extension. 

But now Republicans are ready to turn the page. 

House GOP leaders last week retreated on legislation extending the payroll tax cut through the end of the year, a step they hope will allow them to pivot to attacks on Obama’s energy policies, which they argue are contributing to higher gas prices. Republicans have singled out Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

And by lowering consumer confidence and spending, a further spike in prices at the pump could slow improvements in the economy that have Democrats feeling more optimistic about Obama’s chances in the fall. 

One Democratic strategist said the increase in gas prices is “a big problem” for the administration.

“It’s definitely something that could come around and bite them later on if they’re not careful,” the strategist said.

The president’s speech in Miami will be the first in a series of events in coming days and weeks where Obama will discuss ways to improve the economy, the officials said. 

The administration officials say they are on solid ground to deal with the issue. After all, the officials say domestic production is at its highest since the 1970s.

They said Obama’s multi-pronged argument is that the country must consume less energy while it produces as much as it can on U.S. soil and shores. It must also diversify its energy supply, Obama believes. 

White House aides signal they’ll respond to GOP attacks by promoting oil and gas development while emphasizing auto mileage rules that are expected to save money over time for consumers who buy more efficient vehicles. They’ll also play up their record of opening up new areas for drilling. 

“Over the past three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration as part of our focus on continuing to expand possible responsible domestic production,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday, emphasizing plans to make large new areas available in the Gulf, where development is already centered.

The White House has taken steps to solidify its left flank in recent months, which could help Obama play up his support for new drilling. Obama made gains with restive environmentalists by rejecting Keystone and touting the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules to cut power plant air toxics late last year.

But more recently his Interior Department has focused on drilling. Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that Shell Oil has cleared a major — though not final — federal administrative hurdle in its effort to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast.

And three days later, the administration announced an agreement with Mexican officials that it says will make almost 1.5 million additional acres available for exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.

To be sure, neither the White House nor Congress has much ability to significantly affect prices in the near to medium term.

Carney, on Tuesday, sought to temper expectations even while defending the White House record on energy. 

“There are no magic solutions to rising oil prices and the pain that Americans feel at the pump,” he said.