The Republican Party has settled on three themes with which to assail President Barack Obama. They are the historically high debt, the lack of employment growth and high gasoline prices. All three are strategically sound because they yield easy outrage from voters. But the most tangible of the three — assuming you have a job — is high gas prices.
With the per-gallon price at about $3.85 and climbing, it’s not hard to imagine averages topping $5 this summer.
The debt is indeed appallingly high, though most of it is tied to the nation’s two wars, the Bush tax cuts and expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. The Obama administration is responsible for the stimulus portion, which ties into the second GOP theme: the slow job growth of the last three years.
Nationally, the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 8 percent, though job growth has continued steadily over the last 30 months. The most recent labor statistics report puts unemployment at 8.3 percent, with 227,000 jobs added in February.
Back to gas prices: What would Mitt Romney do that President Obama has not done? And more important, does a president have the power to affect prices in the short term?
Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have spoken frankly — and accurately — about the factors that really drive gas prices and about long-term strategies to free the nation from relying on such fuels.
While governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney conceded that high gas prices “are probably here to stay,” and he worked on policies that cut consumption. But this year, as the GOP front-runner aims his rhetoric at the president, Mr. Romney blames Mr. Obama’s environmental policies for high gas prices. “You see, when he was running, [then Sen. Obama] talked about how his energy policies would cause energy prices to skyrocket,” the candidate said last month, according to a story by NPR’s Morning Edition.
In 2008, when gas prices briefly hovered in the mid-$4-per-gallon range, then-Sen. Obama said he “preferred a gradual adjustment.” The high price point “is such a shock to American pocketbooks [and] not a good thing,” he said. Earlier in the interview, he said his energy policies would focus on longer term solutions.
“The only way we’re going to deal with these high gas prices is if we change how we consume oil, and that means investing in alternative fuels,” Sen. Obama said. “It means that we are raising fuel efficiency standards on cars, that we’re helping the automakers retool.”
Six years ago, then-Gov. Romney took a similar position, NPR notes. In May 2006, when gas prices spiked, he told a newspaper he opposed a temporary suspension of the state gas tax. Instead, he wanted improved fuel efficiency. “I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay,” the governor said then.
In another interview, Mr. Romney said, “Look, if we could somehow magically wave a wand over our automobile fleet and replace all of our cars with the current best technology, 35 mpg-type technology, we’d be saving an extraordinary amount of oil.”
Now candidate Romney wants to “aggressively develop our oil, our gas, our coal [and] our nuclear power.”
For its part, the Obama campaign points out that domestic oil production is higher than at any time since 2003.
Both men know the truth — a growing economy increases demand which drives up prices. Much of the demand is coming in Asia. And both know the best strategy is to reduce the sting of high gas prices by increasing efficiency and reducing use here.
Short of nationalizing oil production or finding revenue other than the fuel tax to fix our roads and bridges, presidents can do little to lower gas prices in the short term. But that won’t matter this summer when pain at the pump becoming politicized.