Pain at the pump has turned into pain at the polls for President Obama—and it's putting the nation's top Democrat in a political bind between an anxious electorate and environmental allies.
Gallup's daily tracking poll showed Obama hitting an all-time low last week at 41 percent, a 10-point drop from mid-March. The downward slide was mirrored in an array of other surveys. And there's plenty of reason to believe that the drop has little to do with the issue that has consumed Washington lately—the budget standoff—and everything to do with gas prices that, according to the AAA, have soared more than a dollar a gallon in the past year.
A recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press listed gas prices as the financial concern that affects people the most, with 69 percent of Americans saying it affects them a lot. Only 7 percent said the rising cost of fuel doesn't affect them at all. Another Pew survey showed that more people are concerned with rising oil prices than with the federal deficit.
Even environmentalists, who want Obama to stick to his clean energy agenda, admit he's in a bind: Rising gas prices make it harder for him to sell his plan to move the nation away from fossil fuels while Republicans are demanding that he expand domestic oil production now.
"When I talk to people, everybody is complaining about gas prices," said Bob Keefe, spokesman for the Natural Resource Defense Council. "And the oil companies have a great slogan, 'drill, baby, drill,' … it's a great slogan but it just doesn't make sense. But that's tough when folks in the Washington area are paying more than 4 dollars a gallon."
Complicating the scenario for President Obama—who campaigned on a pledge to move the nation toward a "green economy"—are Democrats in Congress who come from states where fossil fuels equal jobs. A series of votes earlier this month on Environmental Protection Agency regulations highlighted the rift between the president and Democrats from coal states. And Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has been harshly critical of Obama’s refusal to expand deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico—a potential boon to her state’s economy.
Fretting about rising gas prices in spring isn't new, but there's reason to think the high cost is here to stay through the 2012 election. Analysts think it's even possible that the price of gas will hit $5 a gallon this summer (it was $2.80 per gallon just a year ago).
"Most Americans don't feel daily impact of exploding national debt," said Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer. "But this is one of those issues that whether you're a small business or family, rising gas prices take a greater and greater hit out of a paycheck that can only go so far."
Obama's not the first president to learn the inverse relationship between gas prices and his poll numbers. In the spring of 1979, President Jimmy Carter's Gallup Poll approval fell from 40 percent in April to as low as 28 percent in late June as unrest in Iran sent gas prices skyrocketing. In 1990, Americans rallied around President George H.W. Bush ahead of the Gulf War, but once gas prices started to rise, his approval ratings dipped nearly 25 points in just two months.
During the summer before the 2008 presidential election, surging gas prices made energy an issue and Republicans criticized then-candidate Obama for opposing expanding offshore oil drilling. Other issues, such as GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's gaffes and the meltdown on Wall Street, quickly overshadowed the nation's energy concerns, however.
Last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might have moved the public against offshore drilling, but a still-struggling economy combined with rising prices appears to have undone that sentiment. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week showed support for expanded offshore drilling has returned to pre-spill levels, with 69 percent in support. That was a 20-point jump in support from the same poll taken last year, as the oil spill was in progress.
Voters won't buy the president's denial that more drilling isn't necessary, said Steve Everley, manager of policy research for American Solutions, a Newt Gingrich-founded conservative group that focuses on energy policy.
"There is a political element wrapped up in all of this," Everley said. "He's telling the country we shouldn't do this, and an overwhelming majority is telling him, 'You’re wrong.' He’s going to have to go for broke on that message, or he's going to have to dramatically change course to make himself more in line with what the American people want."
There are signs that the president is concerned: He has touted the fact that there is more offshore drilling now than during President Bush's tenure. And on Thursday, at a town hall meeting in Reno, Nev., he promised to take aim at speculators who, he suggested, might be to blame for the upward spike in gas prices.
"We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gain," he said.
This article appears in the April 22, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.