Presidential campaigns are all about numbers – dollars raised, voters registered, poll results. In the early days of his reelection bid, President Obama is focusing on one number: $4 per gallon gasoline.
It’s a major irritant to most Americans, one that could have significant impact on household economies. And, according to a variety of surveys, Democrats and Obama bear most of the responsibility if not the blame.
That may not be fair, but it’s a fact Obama has to deal with – especially at a time when the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows 70 percent believing the country is headed in the wrong direction and 57 percent don’t like the way he’s handling the economy.
National Journal’s poll of political insiders shows a great majority – including 75 percent of Democratic insiders – predicting that the Democratic Party will be “hurt more by rising gas prices.”
At the same time, a new McClatchy-Marist Poll shows an opening for Obama. While 11 percent blame Obama and Democrats (7 percent cite congressional Republicans), 36 percent say it’s volatility in the Middle East, and 34 percent say US oil companies are the culprits behind record prices at the pump.
Obama tried to hit the issue squarely in his radio and Internet address Saturday, tweaking Republicans and going straight for oil companies.
“Whenever gas prices shoot up, like clockwork, you see politicians racing to the cameras, waving three-point plans for two dollar gas,” Obama said. “You see people trying to grab headlines or score a few points. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away.”
Obama pointed to domestic oil production reaching its highest level since 2003. He noted his new Justice Department task force to root out fraud or manipulation in oil markets. And he repeated his push to end the $4 billion in annual federal subsidies of the oil and gas industries.
“That’s $4 billion of your money going to these companies when they’re making record profits and you’re paying near record prices at the pump,” he said. “It has to stop.”
It’s a theme echoed on Capitol Hill.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats of Washington State, are blaming commodity speculators for pushing up the price of gasoline. They've called for a crackdown by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), an independent government agency.
“Obviously there are myriad factors impacting prices: the Middle East, Japan and crude transportation issues to name a few,” CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton wrote to Sen. Cantwell. “At the same time, however, we have speculators coming into energy markets at blistering pace.”
“In fact, the latest data indicates that in the energy sector, speculative positions are at an all time high – up 64 percent from June of 2008 when crude oil prices touched $147.27 per barrel,” Chilton wrote. (The price for crude now is above $112 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.)
According to the AAA, the national average price of self-serve regular gasoline is $3.86 a gallon – 30 cents more than a month ago and a dollar more than last year at this time.
“Even though the economy is growing again and we’ve seen businesses adding jobs over the past year … it’s still not easy out there,” Obama acknowledged Saturday. “Your paycheck isn’t getting bigger, while the cost of everything from college for your kids to gas for your car keeps rising. That’s something on a lot of people’s minds right now, with gas prices at $4 a gallon. It’s just another burden when things were already pretty tough.”
Imagine intersecting lines on a chart: gasoline prices going up, presidential approval ratings going down. It’s a reality for Obama, and he knows it.
"My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people,” he told a fund-raiser in Los Angeles Thursday night.
The question now is, what can he do about it?