Higher gas prices cloud Obama's re-election hopes

By Tom Raum

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 3:39 p.m. MST

Presidents often get blamed for rising gas prices, but there's not much they can do about them. The current increases at the pump have been driven by tensions in Iran and by higher demand in the U.S. as well as in China, India and other quickly growing nations.

"Obviously, people go to the pump all the time, so it's something that really hits home with the voters," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics. "It's an easy issue to talk about, and not an easy issue to accomplish very much on."

In his Miami remarks, Obama said that despite political criticism of his policies "America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. He also noted that, for the first time in 30 years, the United States is now exporting more petroleum products than it imports.

But Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, challenged Obama's apparent effort to take credit.

"While oil production is up, the increase relates almost entirely to investment and leasing decisions made before, sometimes long before, this administration came into office," Gerard said. "The increase is also due to oil and gas development on private and state lands over which the administration has little or no control at all."

Though Obama's approval rating on the economy has climbed, his negative rating on handling gas prices is stagnant. Just 39 percent approve of what he's doing there, and 58 percent disapprove, according to the new AP-GFK survey.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said gasoline prices are likely to keep rising as the summer driving season approaches. "Increasingly, it's becoming the biggest threat to the economy," he said. "And there is little presidents can do to influence gasoline prices in the near term."

Some lawmakers have called for Obama to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

"Rising gas prices could be the difference between an economy that continues to recover and an economy that sinks back into recession," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., among those calling for such a move.

The emergency reserve is kept in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana and contains about 700 million barrels of oil. There are 42 gallons in each barrel. Last year, as prices rose, Obama authorized the sale of 30 million barrels of oil from the reserve.

However, economists suggest that tapping the reserve to increase the amount of oil on the market has only a modest and temporary effect on gas prices.

Will Obama take that step? White House spokesman Jay Carney says, "We never take options off the table."

Obama may just have to get used to the criticism, because it probably isn't going away anytime soon, said James Thurber, an American University political science professor. "Republicans will hit him with anything that comes up which makes him look bad," he said.

Still, as long as the economy seems to keep improving, Obama probably won't be hurt too much by the attacks "unless gas goes over $5 a gallon," Thurber said.

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