Democratic fears and Republican hopes that rising gasoline prices could hurt President Obama’s and his party’s chances in the 2012 elections may be unfounded, according to the results of a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll. Although a larger percentage of people—18 percent—blame President Obama for the price rise than any other single cause, 28 percent blamed President Bush for increases in 2005.
Americans also don’t blame the oil companies the way they did in 2005. Then, 36 percent said the companies were to blame. Now only 14 percent do. Then, the percentage who blamed Middle East tensions for the rise didn’t register at all in the poll; now 11 percent blame such tensions. The largest percentage, however, is in the Don’t Know/Confused category. In the most recent poll, 24 percent gave that answer; in 2005 only 10 percent did.
With the average nationwide price of gasoline having risen to $ 3.74 a gallon, Republicans have grasped what they see as a political opportunity. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday:
“Over the past few weeks, the American people have begun to feel the painful effects of President Obama’s energy policy. Make no mistake: The rising price of gasoline isn’t simply the result of forces we can’t control.”
Obama hasn’t been taking such claims sitting down. In two recent energy-themed speeches, he pointedly noted that Republicans are “licking their chops” over the prospect that rising prices will pinch Americans’ pocketbooks and vote accordingly for what he calls the GOP’s three-point energy plan: drill, drill, drill. In fact, he says, there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to dealing with energy. Efforts must be made on all fronts, including investments in renewable power sources. As far as drilling is concerned, Obama says, the number of domestic oil rigs now operating is near an all-time and his administration has opened up millions of acres of on- and off-shore public land to drilling. He has also repeated his charge to Congress to get rid of $ 4 billion a year in tax breaks for oil companies now making record profits even as the effective tax rate for some is zero.
So far, at least, the Republicans don’t seem to be scoring any hits on this gas-price front. If prices rise far higher, that could change. But, in a way, the fact that they are using the rising prices so avidly shows how weak their position is going into this election. That’s in part, at least, due to their sinking argument about the economy in general. While there is still a long way to go before it could possibly be called healthy, and there are still caveats, recent news across a broad range of economic metrics has been positive. Mitt Romney’s claims that Obama inherited an economic crisis that he made worse doesn’t resonate at a time when 200,000-plus new jobs are being reported each month.
As Steve Kornacki writes:
Increasingly, Obama’s message has shifted from promising that his policies will eventually work to bragging that they are working, while Republicans have been forced to deemphasize “He made it worse!” and adopt “It could be better!” as their mantra. The recovery is tenuous (and so are Obama’s polling gains), but for the moment, the roles have been reversed and it’s Obama who now has the stronger message on the economy.
If the economy doesn’t slip from its recent gains the way it did a year ago, that message is likely to resonate for Obama and other Democrats come November.