How Gas Prices Could Swing Obama’s Relection

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The front-page headlines continue to be about negotiations over long term deficits, Libya, Syria and Guantanamo. But the most consequential news to those gaming out the 2012 presidential race can be seen below. A sustained spike in gas prices through the summer of 2011 could be politically costly for President Obama. Another spike in the summer of 2012 could be fatal.

As of now, the signs are not good. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy hit 57% last week, the highest ever. Last week, at a fund raiser in Los Angeles, he announced, “My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people.” In fact, he has been talking about gas prices non-stop for weeks, working it into just about every address or town hall, though with little apparent effect, as Mark Smith documents for the Associated Press.

Republicans, meanwhile, are putting their foot down hard on the gas-price pedal. In the House, they’re planning a series of hearings and bills with the intent of blaming Obama — along with Democrats’ resistance to dramatically expand domestic drilling — for the spike in prices. (Call it Drill, Baby, Drill Redux.) Michael Steel, John Boehner’s spokesman, fired the opening shot last week: “The White House and the rest of the Democrats who run Washington are terrified about the political impact of gas prices, because many of their policies — like the national energy tax — are explicitly designed to raise energy prices.” Even Democrats have begun to try to outflank Obama, with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal declaring yesterday that the President’s recently announced task force at the Department of Justice to look into price manipulation does not go far enough.

Obama knows this issue well. He was a major beneficiary of high gas prices in the 2008 cycle. Here is another chart of Energy Information Administration data, showing the cost of a regular gallon since 1990, not adjusted for inflation. Note the timely spike in 2007.

This increase helped to cement the public’s view that the Republican administration of George W. Bush, which was closely tied to oil companies reaping record profits from the oil prices, left much to be desired. (Of course, prices collapsed before the election after Lehman Brothers imploded, a fact that Obama was also able to exploit.) Sometimes, past statements can come back to bite you. Here is Obama in Indiana in April of 2008, almost exactly three years ago, blaming high gas prices on Bush.

“We need a President who is looking out for families in Indiana, not just multi-national corporations, and that’s the kind of President I intend to be,” he promised at a time when gas prices in Indiana were about $3.60 a gallon. Today they a gallon in Indiana averages $3.94, after three years of minimal inflation.

If we follow Obama’s 2008 reasoning that is Bush was to blame for gas prices in 2008, the current president must shoulder the responsibility in 2011. This is a big problem for Obama. I would bet that it will not be long before a Republican candidate appears in front of that same gas station to declare a version of Sarah Palin’s famous refrain, “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for you?”

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