Gas prices trigger Obama scramble

The White House scrambled Monday to contain the political damage from rising gas prices, which have emerged as a primary threat to President Obama’s reelection. 

Obama gave White House interviews touting his energy policies to TV stations in several regions, including the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared in the White House briefing room to emphasize that “all options are on the table” to lower prices.

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Monday’s efforts were just the latest in an aggressive messaging blitz that has included three recent swing-state speeches touting Obama’s backing for oil drilling, federal investments in green energy and his administration’s tougher fuel economy rules.

But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday suggested the effort is falling flat with voters upset about prices at the pump, which according to AAA are now averaging $3.80 per gallon — a 30-cent increase in the last month alone.

The poll found that 65 percent of U.S. adults surveyed disapproved of Obama’s performance on gas prices, while 26 percent approved and 9 percent had no opinion.

Speaking to Florida’s WFTV, the president said he understands why people would give him low marks on the issue.

“As long as gas prices are going up, people are going to feel like I’m not doing enough, and I understand that, because people get hurt when they are going to that gas station and seeing those prices rise every day,” Obama said after he was asked about the poll.

Fuel costs are also hurting Obama’s standing on the economy, which is likely to be the top issue for voters come November. Fifty-nine percent disapproved of how Obama is handling the economy, up from 53 percent in the same poll from early February.

If the trend persists, experts say the president could pay a price at the ballot box.

“Anything that is perceived by people as a problem in the immediate advance of the election has a chance to impact the election,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.

The threat to Obama from rising fuel prices is likely to become more grave if the economic recovery stalls.

“It depends in part on what happens with gas prices, and it depends to some degree on the state of the economy as well,” Beck said.

The economy has added more than 200,000 jobs each of the last three months, according to the Labor Department — welcome news for Obama’s reelection team. But the country still suffers from widespread unemployment, and analysts say a robust recovery is far from a sure thing. 

Obama has warned repeatedly that there are no quick fixes to the price problem, but some Democrats are clamoring for him to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to boost supply. Republicans have strongly objected, arguing the reserve should only be used in a true national emergency.

Democratic strategist Chris Durlak predicted Obama will struggle to stop the slide in his poll numbers until gas prices retreat.

“I think his hands are kind of tied,” he said.

Durlak said there’s room for Obama to get even more aggressive on energy. He suggested that the president stage a political event at an oil production site to counter the GOP’s argument that he is anti-drilling.

“Go to a rig. What better way to say you are for something than to be there?” said Durlak, who is with the firm Purple Strategies. “Visuals are everything.”

Gas prices, which are tethered to global crude oil prices, typically peak in the late spring or early summer in the United States, so the president can at least hope the increase is a seasonal blip. 

But increasing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program are making oil and gasoline prices tougher to predict — an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely send oil prices skyrocketing, and other wild cards could have a similar effect.

Obama has tried to pin some of the blame on the GOP presidential candidates, who he said are adding to fears about an Iran strike with “loose talk” about war.

“The biggest driver of these high gas prices is speculation about possible war in the Middle East, which is why we have been trying to reduce some of the loose talk about war there,” Obama said.

Gas prices have defied seasonal trends in recent years. While average nationwide prices peaked at nearly $4 per gallon in May of 2011, in 2010 prices topped out at just over $3 per gallon in late December, and 2009 saw its highest prices in the fall, according to Energy Information Administration data.

“There is nothing written in stone that says [the peak] is always in the summertime,” said Gregg Laskoski, an analyst with the price information service GasBuddy.com.

“This year is extremely difficult to predict,” Laskoski said. “I don’t think there is any analyst who can predict where things will be in November. There is no way of knowing what will occur in the Middle East and how it will unfold.”

In the near term, at least, expect prices at a level that will continue to fuel GOP attacks and pose political problems for Obama. Laskoski’s company had earlier estimated prices in the $3.75 to $4.25 range by Memorial Day.

“If things continue at the pace we are seeing now, we could see quite a few markets closer to $4.50 gallon than $4.25,” he said.

If there’s any bright spot in the gasoline surge, it’s that the pump pain isn’t being felt to the same degree in every battleground state, noted an analysis last week from Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group.

In some states that will be crucial in the fall, such as Michigan and Nevada, prices are above the national average, while in others, such as North Carolina, they’re at least somewhat lower.

Obama stuck to familiar themes on Monday, arguing the country can’t drill its way out of the problem. Only efforts to curb demand, Obama said, will have a lasting impact.

“That is what is going to reduce demand over the long term and the medium term, and we have got to keep at that,” he said.

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