White House looks to change the optics in debate over rising gas prices

The White House is shifting its optics on gas prices after struggling in recent days to win the public debate over the issue.

President Obama will head to Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ohio next week to tout American-made energy—including an area which houses more than seventy active drilling rigs.

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The trip—which includes three battleground states—provides for much-needed photo-op moments of Obama visiting or possibly even speaking in front of active wells, which the White House hopes will hammer home its argument that domestic production has increased under his administration.

It is also a tacit admission that the current messaging campaign to deflect blame for rising gas prices, largely done through presidential addresses at college campuses and manufacturing facilities in recent weeks, has been largely unsuccessful.

The optics on the energy issue have become an increasing problem for Obama. A Washington Post poll released Monday found only 26 percent of voters approve of Obama’s handling of rising gas prices.

At the same time, observers—including Democratic strategists and others close to the White House—have found fault with the administration’s efforts.

“What they’ve been doing up until now hasn’t been very effective,” said one former administration official.



While observers agree that there is no “silver bullet” on the issue, they say the administration needs to take more of a show-not-tell approach to clearly telegraph their message on energy.


“They probably need to be a little clearer in showing that [Obama] does support domestic production,” said David Meadvin, a Democratic strategist.

“One of the ways they can get out of this bind is to put the president before an oil rig in shirt sleeves and say, ‘here,’ added Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “They need to go to two or three places and say, ‘This is where it’s happening’ because people don’t believe it is.”

Even as Obama provides a more tangible moment for the viewing public, senior administration officials say there’s no change in course.

One senior administration official said this week the White House has no plans to shift the president’s messaging on the issue. In the coming days and weeks, the official said, Obama will continue a constant drumbeat where he touts his strategy—including his push for green energy— while responding to false attacks on issues about his record on domestic energy production.

The administration official said Obama will seek to ensure that people understand his record and that they understand there are no silver bullets and easy fixes for the problem.

At the same time, senior officials said, Obama will answer the so-called “cynics and naysayers” who have urged Obama to drill by highlighting his administration’s increase in domestic production.

During a speech on Thursday, a fiery president—who played off the crowd of college students—aimed to do just that in his sharpest rhetoric on the issue to date.

“Do not tell me that we’re not drilling,” Obama said at a speech at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland. “We’re drilling all over this country. There are a few spots we’re not drilling. We’re not drilling in the national mall. We’re not drilling at your house.”

The president also accused Republicans of viewing the energy issue through a narrow scope.

“If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society,” Obama said. They would not believe that the world was round.”

But observers say Obama needs to step up the rhetoric even more so against his rivals.

“When some of these ridiculous comments are being lobbed, they should hit back harder than what they’ve been doing to make it clear that these people are being absurd,” the former Obama administration official said. “They should hit back with facts.”

Beyond their optics problem, the White House has also been tripped up by their handling of the Keystone XL pipeline—something Obama will aim to fix when he visits Oklahoma next week to talk about it.

The rejection of the pipeline by the White House has given the GOP perhaps one of the more definitive talking points during the next election cycle.

“The White House still needs to justify why they turned down the pipeline,” MacManus said. “They still haven’t really done that. It’s the one issue that received a lot of attention and it contributed to this perception that the administration isn’t doing anything to help bring down gas prices.”

Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, said the Obama administration has failed to get in front of the pipeline issue.

‘The White House let themselves lose on that issue and that’s staggering,” Fratto said. “It’s going to get built, there’s no stopping it. And if they had supported it, they’d have something positive to talk about.”

While Fratto agrees that “there are no silver bullets,” he said Americans are basing their beliefs on Obama’s record and what their expectations are for the future.

But Democratic strategist Phil Singer disagrees with that assessment. Obama, Singer said, has done all he can to address the issue.

“When gas prices go up a president is unfairly blamed and when gas prices go down, a president is unfairly credited,” Singer said. “The truth of the matter is, a president has very little control on the price of gas. It really has less to do with what Barack Obama is doing or saying and everything to do with the fact that he has president before his name.”