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Prices, Polls, and Peril

The rising cost of gasoline fuels the volatility beneath President Obama’s feet.

President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the James Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing, March 6, 2012.(Richard A. Bloom)

The gas-price war could gobble up President Obama’s entire green-energy agenda, because it may devour his presidency. Gobble and devour may be a bit alarmist, I grant you. But polls this week—and White House behavior—bespeak deep-seated, legitimate concern.

Last month, the CBS News/New York Times poll registered a 50 percent approval rating for Obama, the highest since last May and only the second time since April 2010 that he had hit 50 percent or higher. Now, the same poll shows the president’s approval rating at 41 percent. Obama’s numbers sank 9 points even as poll respondents said that things were moving in the right direction (the right-track number jumped from 24 percent to 29 percent). The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed a similar downward pattern but a smaller order of magnitude. In one month, Obama’s approval rating in that survey fell from 50 percent to 46 percent. In both, ratings for his handling of the economy fell. In the ABC/Post survey, approval tumbled from 44 percent to 38 percent (with a 59 percent disapproval rating), and in the CBS/Times poll, it fell from 44 percent to 39 percent (with a 54 percent disapproval rating).

These sudden reversals, in what the White House dismisses as outlier polls, erase much of the steady gain in generic approval and support for Obama’s economic policies since September. That’s when the White House message shifted away from Republican turf on debts and deficits toward jobs and higher taxes on the wealthy.


The populist wave that Obama was riding appears to have been devoured by the undertow of higher gas prices—despite hyperactive attempts to shield his presidency from the political backlash.

Some Republicans delight in Obama’s gas-price predicament, remembering how he skewered President Bush and GOP nominee John McCain during the 2008 campaign. On April 25, 2008, Obama stood in front of gas pumps in Indianapolis and decried the hardships that higher prices ($3.43 per gallon in Indianapolis at the time) were inflicting on middle-class families. “Few costs, obviously, are rising faster than the ones people pay at the pump,” Obama said. “To most Americans, they are a huge problem, bordering on a crisis.”

Fast-forward to this year. On Jan. 23, the average price of a gallon of gas in Indianapolis was $3.19. On March 13, it was $3.98—a 25 percent increase in 50 days. That isn’t bordering on a crisis. That’s a full-blown crisis.

Panic within the White House is palpable. Obama granted interviews on Monday to local TV affiliates from Cincinnati; Orlando, Fla.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Pittsburgh. These are not only big swing-state cities, each has also suffered alarming price spikes. Here’s the tale of the tape from Since Jan. 23, gas prices are up 67 cents in Cincinnati, 40 cents in Orlando, 59 cents in Des Moines, and 36 cents in Pittsburgh.

Price pressure isn’t all that Obama faces, and, by itself, it cannot explain all of his approval-rating woes. It appears that something deeper is at work here, and the way the president deals with it will tell the nation a great deal about his energy philosophy and his political strength.

In the 2008 gas-pump speech in Indianapolis, Obama said, “There is no easy answer to our energy crisis. Any real solution isn’t going to come overnight.” This is precisely what he is saying now. Give him credit for consistency. What Obama promised in 2008 was a $150 billion investment in “the green-energy sector” that would create “5 million new jobs.”

The verdict on these investments is not yet in, but the president faces a danger that gas prices could become the proxy for voter antipathy toward his overall “green jobs” agenda. Some of the evidence for Obama is troubling.

The economic-stimulus package devoted $90 billion to green jobs. A White House progress report released on Monday counted 224,500 jobs created. That’s a far cry from a $150 billion investment creating 5 million jobs. The Chevy Volt, its $48,700 sticker price subsidized by federal taxpayers to the tune of $7,500, has suspended production. Stock prices for nonsubsidized electric-vehicle companies—such as Li-ion Motors, T3 Motion, and ZAP—are down sharply.

That’s not all. The failure of solar-cell maker Solyndra and two other green-energy firms, Ener 1 (lithium-ion batteries) and Beacon Power (energy storage), collectively cost taxpayers $696 million. A $500 million green-jobs training program now under investigation in the House has vastly underperformed. The Labor Department’s inspector general found that the program placed about 10 percent of the job seekers it originally envisioned.

In all of these cases, the White House says that today’s spending and subsidizing will pay off in the future. Further, the administration argues that Republicans’ hostility to green technologies will soon relegate them to “flat-earth-society” status. Obama has said that the country has no choice but to catch up on years of neglect in financing green start-ups—some of which might very well fail—to close the green-technology gap with our global competitors.  

That argument will get its sternest test ever in the fiery debate about gas prices. Make no mistake: What Obama says and does on gas prices will determine the fate of his green-energy agenda … and possibly his presidency.

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