Last week I wrote that President Obama may be peaking a bit too early in the election year. This week, several polls showed him slipping in popularity and tying or even trailing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the general election.
There’s an obvious reason, and it’s not that voters are suddenly warming to the wretched Republican presidential candidates: Gasoline prices have continued to rise.
As of Monday, a gallon of unleaded gasoline averaged $3.83 a gallon nationwide, up ten cents a gallon from two weeks ago. In California, it approached $4.50 a gallon, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The Wharton School put out a very helpful primer on gas prices, which you can read here.
Three quarters of the price of gasoline are determined by the price of crude, and crude has been rising sharply amid speculation about an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or military action in the Strait of Hormuz, as I wrote in my column a couple of weeks ago.
Some supply constraints at US refineries also are having an impact, and they may not be cleared up until June.
That means we could have high gasoline prices through Memorial Day at least, which could have a chilling effect on the economy and hurt President Obama even more in the polls. Unfairly or not, a growing number of Americans now hold the president and his administration responsible for higher gasoline prices.
So far the president hasn’t handled this well. While irresponsible candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pledge to get gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon (would that happen before or after he kept his promise to attack Iran?), the president himself has been shrugging his shoulders and saying there’s not much he can do about it.
That is a reversion to the laid-back, it’s-out-of-my-hands style that hurt him during the debt ceiling debate when events seemed to be in charge of him rather than vice versa.
Yes, the causes are complex and the problem is difficult to fix. And I don’t think cheap gas should be the be-all and end-all of our energy policy.
But gasoline prices are a symbol of the president’s ability to take charge and solve economic problems that matter to real people. So, he needs to figure out how to relieve the bottlenecks at midcontinent storage facilities and help distributors get the crude to coastal refineries where they can be converted into gasoline.
Or he can release supply from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as he and other countries did last year. Or maybe he could broker a solid agreement with Iran that could take the prospect of a new Middle East war off the table. Good luck with that one.
But if he doesn’t do something, he may well lose hard-won ground among independent voters who want a president to show leadership and interest in their problems. President Obama’s detached fatalism isn’t playing well, and for his own good, people on his team need to tell him that hard truth.