Gasoline politics, yet again
So right now the price of gasoline is ticking people off and politically imperiling the president. Excuse me if I yawn. I have written similar versions of that opening sentence maybe 10 times in the past 15 years.When gas prices spike, which is often, voter-motorists typically demand that the president do something about it. Political opponents typically leap into the fray, and suggest that the high cost is the president’s fault. The president then makes a few noises about how he hopes to see those prices fall a bit, but the truth is, there’s very little that a president can do. And then the story goes away when prices finally stabilize.The current version of the story goes like this: The price of a barrel of oil has jumped $30 since February, and that, coupled with steady price climbs since last summer, has raised the average price of gas per gallon by roughly 85 cents since the spring of ’10. It’s a political problem for Barack Obama, because pain at the pump – all those digital numbers whizzing upward – is a psychological downer that puts people in a bad mood. (Behaviorial experts have actually studied this.) And when people are in a bad mood, they look for someone to blame. Guess who that would be.In response, all that any president can really do, at least in the short term, is empathize. Obama said yesterday at a town hall, “Folks out there are dealing with gas that’s four bucks a gallon (in certain major cities)….I’ll admit to you, it’s been awhile since I filled up at the pump. Secret Service doesn’t let me get out, and they don’t let me drive anymore. But it wasn’t that long ago that I did have to fill up my gas tank, and I know that if you got a limited budget, and you just watch that hard-earned money going away…it’s pretty frustrating.”But the truth is, no president can control the international forces of supply and demand. I wrote a version of that same sentence in April ’08 when gas prices spiked during George W. Bush’s waning tenure. A Democratic candidate named Barack Obama tried to take political advantage while on the stump (“Gas prices are killing us, folks!”) but I defended Bush (yes) by pointing out some of the facts of life that are just as true today:There’s a tough, competitive global market for oil, and America is merely one of the buyers. (I know that fact might come as shock to those of you fixated on the delusion that America is always Number One.) America has to compete today with the burgeoning, oil-demanding economies of China and India. China, over the past decade, has accounted for roughly half the growth in oil consumption. With nations like China and India driving up demand for oil, naturally the price of oil will stay high (that’s capitalism, folks). In fact, a federal agency, the Energy Information Administration, says that the cost of gas will probably average $3.56 a gallon through 2012.The price spikes occur when there are problems on the supply side (or when speculators are betting that there will be problems on the supply side). When Bush was president and bedeviled by numerous spikes, major civil unrest in Nigeria slowed that nation’s oil production; meanwhile, Venezuela started routing a lot more of its oil to China instead of to us. And now, on Obama’s watch, there have been rising concerns about oil production in the Middle East and North Africa. It hardly needs to be pointed out that one of the big spikes this year was triggered by the crisis in Libya.Political leaders always vow to fix the problem. When gas prices spiked early in Bush’s second term, in the aftermath of Katrina, even Bush asked the Federal Trade Commission to find out whether the oil companies were manipulating the market. (The FTC concluded that the oil companies were merely charging price that the increasingly competitive global market would accept.) When gas prices spiked in 2000, the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, candidates Al Gore and Bush dueled over who would better bring the prices down, as if either could really do so.And when gas prices spiked in April 1996, when Clinton was readying his re-election campaign, both parties competed for political advantage – even though the cause of the spike was beyond their control. Global demand was rising, Americans were driving bigger vehicles faster and faster, and (this is my favorite) America had not yet received a long-anticipated massive release of oil from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.It can be argued that the current gas price spike, at least for middle-class families, is really small potatoes. Economic experts say that this spike amounts to only a few hundred extra dollars a year, which will hardly prompt people to put their hi-def TVs up for sale on eBay. So perhaps a dose of perspective is required. On the other hand, this is more money from the pocket, at a time (actually, an entire era, dating back to the dawn of Bush) when wages have been stagnant. The jobless rate has inched down to 8.8 percent, but the percentage of Americans who pump gas is close to 100. All of which helps explain why Obama’s poll numbers have inched down in recent weeks.”There aren’t a lot of short-term solutions,” Obama said yesterday, telling Americans what they didn’t want to hear. (Are any of the ’12 Republican candidates offering viable short-term solutions? Not a chance, because there aren’t any.) Obama did say yesterday that “we have a medium- and long-term solution” – and that’s absolutely true. Presidents in both parties, and American motorists, will be forever held hostage at the pump unless we free ourselves from our foreign oil fix. And then maybe, on some elusive distant day, this price-spike political story will forever go away.Care to bet on that?
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.