Obama faces dilemma over gas prices as presidential campaign hits homestretch

President Obama faces a dilemma as Mitt Romney bashes him over high gasoline prices in the final weeks of their close race.

Obama must decide whether to address the attacks head-on, or stay the course on a messaging strategy that has recently been addressing prices indirectly.

Democratic strategists and other experts argue that three weeks before voters go to the polls, Obama should steer clear of big messaging or policy pivots on gas prices.

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“Bringing the issue up this close to Election Day would be self-defeating at this point,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent consultant who was a climate change aide in the Clinton White House.

Dramatic action on energy appears unlikely before the election even as the campaigns tweak their closing arguments.

White House officials have said in recent months that a release from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) is an option on the table. But speculation about the prospect has dimmed in recent weeks as oil prices have fallen off their summer highs that reached around $100-per-barrel in mid-September.

Prices closed Friday at $91.86-per-barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Democratic political strategist Michael Stratton said that tapping the SPR would damage Obama.

“Anything with gas prices that would be perceived as manipulative at this point would work against him, and would be perceived by everybody so cynically that it would be ineffective,” he said.

Average nationwide gasoline prices are currently $3.79-per-gallon and have for weeks been setting records for the highest prices on specific days of the year, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA). Prices, though, have been dropping in recent days.

Also, the current national average has been skewed upward by the major recent price spike in California, which saw average Golden State prices jump a half-dollar in a week to reach $4.67 on Oct. 9 before falling back, according to AAA.

Average nationwide prices are well below the all-time record of $4.11-per-gallon reached in the summer of 2008, when battles over drilling played a starring role in the election. That summer Obama, then a candidate, signaled what appeared to be new openness to offshore drilling if coupled with a wider energy strategy.

The president, when discussing energy policy this year, has mentioned pump prices to varying degrees. Obama, in energy policy speeches last spring when prices were surging and neared an average of $4-per-gallon, addressed high prices head-on and noted their toll on families’ wallets. 

Obama and aides stressed at the time that there are no quick-fixes or silver bullets to address high prices, while touting his broad strategy centered on green energy, domestic oil-and-gas production, and boosting auto efficiency.

More recently, he has continued emphasizing U.S. oil production increases, falling import reliance, toughened auto efficiency, and green energy. But Obama has dropped the overt discussion of current pump prices and the lack of quick fixes.

Bledsoe said there’s no reason to change course in the final weeks of the campaign. “The president is probably best served by emphasizing the good news message on energy supply, which he is increasingly building into his stump speech,” said Bledsoe, who also worked for Clinton’s Interior Department. 

Romney is seeking to put Obama on the defensive over prices that have doubled since he became president, even though experts caution that policymakers have little impact on the costs, which are tethered to oil prices on world markets.

Average prices were $1.89-per-gallon when Obama took office in January of 2009, but that price reflects the drop in energy demand during the global economic downturn. 

In the first Obama-Romney debate Oct. 3, the GOP nominee noted that prices have doubled on Obama’s watch when listing burdens facing the middle class that he lays at Obama’s feet, comments that also appear in his stump speeches.

Obama didn’t parry the price attack directly, but touted his overall energy approach. Later in the debate Obama referenced prices when bashing tax breaks for oil companies, noting “does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money when they're making money every time you go to the pump?”

Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic strategist, said emphasizing oil industry tax breaks is smart politics against Romney. “The tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies gives you an offensive tool that targets where Romney is vulnerable,” he said.

Another Democratic strategist similarly said that unless there’s a major disruption in energy markets that send prices spiking, Obama should “stay the course” on energy messaging ahead of the election.

Obama’s current messaging strategy will be tested in coming weeks. 

 “Gov. Romney will continue to discuss how President Obama’s failed energy policies have made life more difficult for middle-class families with skyrocketing gas prices, increasing costs, and by destroying jobs,” said Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Romney. “Americans can’t afford four more years like the last four, and deserve better than what they’ve received from President Obama.”

Romney and other Republicans have bashed Obama for what they call undue restrictions on U.S. energy development in federally controlled lands and offshore, noting for instance that Obama’s offshore oil-and-gas leasing plans keep the east and west coasts off-limits.

A spokesman for Obama's campaign, asked how the campaign will address gasoline prices in its closing arguments before November’s election, responded by touting Obama’s overall energy message.

“When it comes to energy, after 30 years of inaction, President Obama has doubled fuel efficiency standards so our cars and trucks will go farther on a gallon of gas, helped double our production of job-creating clean wind and solar energies, and championed an all-of-the-above American energy strategy,” spokesman Adam Fetcher said, noting oil production is at a 14-year high and natural gas production is at record highs.

Overall, energy policy has been tough going for Obama during his White House tenure. 

For instance, he announced an expansion of offshore oil-and-gas leasing that included areas off the East Coast in late March of 2010. But three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, touching off the massive BP oil spill. The expanded leasing proposal was eventually scaled back, dropping the plan to make the new coastal areas available that had been off-limits.

Other struggles have included the failure of the federally backed solar company Solyndra, and the decision over the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, a project that environmentalists bitterly oppose but a substantial number of unions want.

The White House has delayed a decision on a cross-border permit for the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline until 2013, drawing what have become ongoing attacks from GOP pipeline advocates who call it a missed chance to create jobs.

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