Advancing a Free Society

Why the White House is Worried

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On the surface, the White House and Team Obama in Chicago have a lot to cheer about. According to the Real Clear Politics average, President Barack Obama’s approval rating is up to 48 percent. By contrast, Congress’s approval rating registers just 11 percent. Looking ahead to November, the President outpolls each of his Republican presidential hopefuls by at least 5 percent. On the economic front, employers have added 1 million workers to payrolls since July, according to the Labor Department. During that same period, the unemployment rate has dropped by 0.8 percentage point, the biggest decline since 1984. Perhaps most important for Mr. Obama, consumer-confidence measures are climbing out of the depths reached during the last recession. So with all this good news, why is the White House worried? Two words – gas prices.

U.S, gasoline prices have risen 47 cents a gallon over the last two months according to AAA. And with the summer driving season approaching, analysts expect prices to surge even higher. $5 or even $6 a gallon gas is not out of the question. White House officials and President Obama, both of whom have demonstrated a high degree of confidence over the past month, now recognize that President Obama’s chances of re-election are suddenly not exactly a slam-dunk.

Last Thursday, President Obama traveled to Miami to deliver a speech that both confronted rising public anxiety over rising gas prices and struck back at his GOP critics- who blame the President’s energy policies for the spike in prices at the pump. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney began his daily briefing to White House reporters with a statement that fired back at House Speaker John Boehner who claimed that approving the Keystone XL pipeline, would lower gas prices. “That's the kind of empty promise that politicians make when we face hikes in the global price of oil that is really dishonest,” said a visibly irritated Carney.

The White House’s concern is understandable. A recent Associated Press/GFK poll shows that 39 percent approve of President Obama’s handling of gas prices; 58 percent disapprove. Those numbers are troubling for Team Obama, particularly when you factor in that seven in 10 of those polled by AP/GFK find the issue of rising gas prices deeply important.

It’s not just motorists who have taken notice of the gas price spike—every time they fill up their tank. So have the Republican presidential candidates. Newt Gingrich is hoping the issue jumpstarts his flagging campaign. "I've developed a program for American energy so no future president will ever bow to a Saudi king again, and so every American can look forward to $2.50-a-gallon gasoline," said Gingrich at last Wednesday night’s GOP debate in Mesa, Arizona. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney have each begun including lines in their standard stump speeches that criticize President Obama over the surge in gas prices.

Their political instincts are spot on. With the U.S. economy showing signs of recovery, the one issue that is most promising for Republicans hoping to win back the White House is gas prices. President Obama knows this. And OFA – “Obama for America” knows this. If Republicans can own this issue, Barack Obama will be on the defensive all the way through November. And like Jimmy Carter, it could mean a one-term presidency. That would give Mr. Obama plenty of time to test-drive that Chevy Volt he says he intends to buy when he leaves the White House.

(photo credit: photoloni)