Obama gets boost as gas prices drop

U.S. drivers and President Obama are both benefitting from falling gas prices this Memorial Day weekend.

The nationwide average price for regular gasoline has dropped 18 cents in the last month to $3.65-per-gallon according to AAA, just in time for one of the busiest weekends on the nation’s roads.

While the prices are still high, the decline has sapped some of the octane from GOP attacks on Obama’s energy policies.

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“I think whenever you see gas prices decline, you will see these campaigns and parties switch to a different message, because that energy message doesn’t have the same bite it would have if energy costs were high,” said GOP strategist Tyler Harber, a partner with Harcom Strategies.

“I think you will see gas prices and energy start to disappear from the daily message attacks from Romney and the Republicans until the gas prices begin to spike again,” Harber said.

“Gas prices won't be as much of a weight on his shoulders as they would have been,” agreed Democratic strategist Chris Durlak. “I think it is one less thing that is going to dominate their narrative, it is one less thing that they have to worry about.”

Republicans, to be sure, have signaled that they hope to remain on offense over energy.

House Republicans fanned out across the country in recent days for camera-friendly events at drilling rigs and other energy-related sites, including a visit Friday by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to an offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cantor signaled Friday that Republicans will bring more energy bills to the floor in mid-June aimed at knocking down what Republicans call red tape (and many Democrats and green groups call needed environmental reviews) in oil-and-gas development.

But the topic isn’t dominating the news the way it did when prices were on the upswing.

Just two months ago, gas prices looked like the biggest danger to Obama’s reelection.

Average pump prices came with a nickel of $4-per-gallon in early April (and soared well above that in some regions), Republicans were raging over Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and Democrats were worried high gas prices would add to unease about Obama’s handling of the economy.

The run-up earlier this year had thrown the White House on the defensive, feeding daily Republican attacks.

The increase helped prompt Obama to make a series of energy policy speeches in swing states in March, where he touted support for drilling, green energy programs and conservation while warning there are no “silver bullets” for gas prices.

The White House and Obama’s Chicago-based reelection campaign can hardly let their guard down.

Costs to fill up remain high enough to make drivers grimace. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program could send global oil prices back up again, and market analysts say a military strike against Iran would send oil prices -- and hence gasoline prices -- skyrocketing.

Obama is also facing sustained allegations from Romney, his surrogates and Capitol Hill Republicans that the White House places too many limits and regulations on energy development, attacks the White House has parried by noting rising domestic oil-and-gas production.

Energy measures included in a summer floor agenda announced by Cantor on Friday stand little chance of passage in the Senate but serve as a platform for political attacks.

While prices have dropped, Cantor’s memo to House Republicans notes today’s prices are double what consumers were paying when Obama took office (a time when the collapsing economy had driven prices downward).

“That additional cost acts as a drag on the already-sluggish economy and a tax on struggling American consumers, especially small businesses and the middle class,” Cantor’s memo states. Obama energy policies are also preventing the creation of new jobs, the memo said.

A top Senate Republican, in a short interview Thursday, said Republicans will continue framing their energy message around jobs.

In particular, Republicans are continuing their months-long push for legislation that would authorize Keystone’s construction, which would bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, and is also envisioned to carry oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said falling prices are good news for consumers and the economy, but added that prices are not the only focus of energy policy.

“I look at it from the bigger picture, when we are talking about some of these domestic production initiatives, whether it is offshore or whether it is Keystone, it is about jobs, it is about a healthy economy, and that issue does not go away just because the price at the pump is lessening,” she told The Hill Thursday.

The Obama administration nixed a permit for Keystone in January and is now reviewing pipeline developer TransCanada Corp.’s revised application, though a decision won’t come until long after the election.

Harber, the Republican strategist, said that the attacks against Obama when prices were rising this year may have done lasting damage, because the pain at the pump hurt family budgets and fed into larger questions about Obama’s economic stewardship.

“I think that the gas price issue probably hurt Obama a little bit because it began to bring to the surface some of the other economic issues that he will have to respond to before November,” Harber said.

Obama remains highly vulnerable on the economy, polls show.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released several days ago shows Obama’s approval rating on the economy at 43 percent, two points below a poll a month earlier but still better than the low of 37 percent in the same poll last August.

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a principal with the Dewey Square Group, said the falling prices will help Obama emphasize the policies he’s enacting to reduce the country’s reliance on oil.

“It will also help the president because consumers are not going to feel as stressed out economically,” she said.