White House Gas Pains

White House officials are scheduling two more out-of-town trips this week to showcase the President’s energy strategy, possibly marking an uptick in concern about the political impact of rising gas prices.

The Wednesday trip to Philadelphia and the Friday trip to Indianapolis will allow President Obama to continue “speaking directly with Americans about his long-term plan to protect consumers against rising oil prices and decrease oil imports,” said press secretary Jay Carney.

The events and focus are needed because “when gas hits the $4 a gallon mark, voters get really upset [even though] they don’t understand that the President can’t change gas prices,” said Kenneth Green, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think-tank in D.C. Also, he added, officials are using the “the high price of gasoline to advance a anti-fossil fuel agenda.”

In recent weeks, the President has sharply increased promotion of his energy policy, using a P.R. blueprint that is now standard in the White House. For example, on March 30, the president delivered an address at Georgetown University where he redefined the political problem of high-gas prices as a history of unstable oil-prices. He then offered a compromise policy that would set prices between too-cheap and too-expensive, cut oil-imports by one-third, and emphasized that government experts – including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has a Nobel science prize – are already working hand-in-hand with high-tech companies.

There was nothing new in the address, because the president had already explained his energy strategy back on March 11. However, his Mar. 11 pitch had minimal impact because the television-worthy Japanese earthquake and Libyan war sucked up all the media’s attention.

Some of that reality was possibly exposed on the day of Obama’s Georgetown energy speech, when Chu inadvertently pulled back the curtain and revealed the political purpose of the speech. In a press conference at the White House, he said “the bottom line message is that we feel the pain that all Americans feel on the price of gasoline today.  We see what it will lead to.”

Since last September, gas prices have risen from $2.70 a gallon to $3.60 a gallon by this March. “We watch these things very closely,” Carney told the press on March 31, and immediately reminded the reporters that the President has already announced a national energy plan.

Rising gas prices are widely interpreted in D.C. as a major cause of falling poll-ratings, and the president’s rates are drifting downwards. Quinnipiac polls show the President’s approval dropping during this period from 44 percent to 42 percent, and his disapproval number rising from 47 percent to 48 percent. That’s a shift from -3 to -6 points. Over the same period, Gallup reported Wednesday, his rating as a “strong and decisive” leader among independents fell to 49 percent.