Obama tries to cap oil leak with lawyers

With its public support leaking away as gas-prices rise past $4.00 per gallon, the White House is siccing the Justice Department on the energy industry, just like George W. Bush and legislators when they were hit by oil-price shocks.

“The Attorney General is putting together a team whose job it is to root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices, and that includes the role of traders and speculators,” Obama announced at his April 21 townhall meeting in Reno, Nev.

President George W. Bush adopted the same tactic in 2006, back when gas prices were still under $3.00. “This administration is not going to tolerate manipulation… Americans understand, by and large, that the price of crude oil is going up and that the prices are going up, but what they don’t want and will not accept is manipulation of the market,” Bush declared at the annual conference for companies in the ethanol industry, the Renewable Fuels Association.

“Every time the price of energy goes up, the politicians who are most responsible for getting us in this situation scream the loudest about high oil prices,” said Dan Kish, the research director for the Institute for Energy Research. “They won’t allow us to drill in [Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] or offshore, the price goes up and they scream.”

Politicians and pollsters say gas prices are pushing down the President’s approval numbers. The price has risen from roughly $2.70 a gallon when he was inaugurated to $4.00 now, and perhaps $5.00 by next year. A recent Gallup poll shows a sharp decline in Obama’s approval rating to 41 percent, a CNN poll from March shows that 64 percent said gas prices are causing hardship to their household. The gas prices are also unnerving consumers, possibly reducing confidence in future economic growth.

“My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people,” Obama acknowledged at April 21 fund-raiser in California.

The political risk for the administration is clear. High gas prices can push swing-voters out of the Democratic column in November 2012. “This gas issue is serious,” Obama told the Reno audience. “It hurts because you know every time you go to work a big chunk of your paycheck is being eaten up.  And you might already be having trouble making ends meet at the end of the month… We’re going to make sure that nobody is taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gain.”

Republicans are eager to take advantage of the problem, partly because few voters blame the out-of-power party for gas-prices. “The White House is terrified of the gas price issue because many of their policies – like the national energy tax – are explicitly designed to raise energy prices,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “It was the President himself who said [in 2008] that under his plan, electricity prices would ‘necessarily skyrocket.’” Steel said.