As unemployment continues to tick downward, Republicans are searching for messages other than joblessness with which to bludgeon President Obama. On Sunday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich hinted at such a new line of attack: Gas prices.
In appearances on both NBC’s Meet the Press and CBS’s Face the Nation, Gingrich cited pain at the pump to make the case against Obama – even if the unemployment rate, which dipped to 8.3 percent in January, continues to drop.
Asked how he would campaign against the incumbent in an improving economy, Gingrich replied: “If it is combined with the highest-priced gasoline in American history because of his anti-American energy policies, he's still going to have a challenge.” He went on to attack an upcoming Environmental Protection Agency rule he said threatened to hike prices up to 25 cents per gallon.
The Republican field, and in particular frontrunner Mitt Romney, have thus far made the “Obama economy” a centerpiece of their candidacies. A brightening jobs picture – the unemployment rate is now the lowest since the first full month of Obama’s tenure – makes those arguments harder, though several months of steady gains aren’t knocking them off the topic – yet.
In his victory speech Saturday night after winning the Nevada caucuses, Romney accused Obama of “trying to take a bow” for falling unemployment. “Not so fast, Mr. President,” he said, citing a “real unemployment rate" of more than 15 percent.
“Mr. President, America has also had enough of your kind of help,” Romney said.
(Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took a different tact. On Fox News Sunday, he suggested a growing economy undermined the premise of a Romney candidacy. “He's pretty much a uni-dimensional candidate,” he said. “I mean, all he talks about is being the CEO, being the CEO, being the businessman.” If the economy is improving, Santorum suggested, than perhaps Romney ought not be the nominee.)
For his part, Gingrich, descended into wonkish detail to prove the economy is still floundering, citing the “U6,” Congressional Budget Office and Federal Reserve.
Republicans are right that economic growth has remained stubbornly slow for the last three years. But, in politics, how the American people feel can be at least as important as economic facts and figures, and openly rooting against an economic recovery for political gain can be dangerous for any candidate.
One clear indicator of the improving mood is the stock market. The Dow Jones industrial average closed Friday at its highest point since early 2008, before the financial crisis. But as the stock market has climbed, so too have gas prices. They now stand at $3.44-per gallon, according to gasbuddy.com, which tracks prices nationally, up from only $3.12 a year ago.
Those are still off from all-time highs, despite what Gingrich said. That came in 2008, when prices peaked north of $4-per gallon and chants of “drill, baby, drill” reverberated from the Republican convention and across the campaign trail. If the economy continues to mend, Gingrich’s remarks on Sunday suggest Republicans could be readying a reprise.
Alexandra Jaffe contributed. contributed to this article.