White House Gas Pains

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

The White House’s P.R. response model has also been applied to the Libyan crisis. On March 28, in a speech at the National Defense University, Obama redefined the crisis as an imminent massacre, not a civil-war. He announced a compromise policy in which he would use jets – not ground troops – to contain, but not remove, the dictator.

But like Chu, Obama also revealed the possibility of an underlying political priority. Just towards the mid-point of the speech, he explained the U.S. intervention as an effort to prevent images of a massacre being broadcast. “As President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” he said. Such images would be damaging to his domestic political scores, in part, because they would undermine his foreign-policy credentials.

In the next few days, weeks and months, lobbyists, legislators, reporters, bloggers, TV anchors and experts galore will debate the details, flaws, advantages and promise of the President’s energy speech, just as they have been dissecting the strategy, tactics, contradictions and diplomacy of his intervention in the Libyan war.

Whether the participants want, their debate about gas-policy details will likely shift voters’ attention from the pain of gas-prices, towards the President’s helpful redefinition and his hopeful policy.

“The media is doing its best to serve his agenda by spinning [gas prices] away from him,” said Green. “When [President George W.] Bush was in power, it was all Bush’s fault that gas was $4 a gallon, but now that Obama is in power, it’s anybody else’s fault,” he said.

That’s an advantage for the President, and a disadvantage for Republicans, because the GOP already knows how to win swing voters with promises of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” That slogan threw Congressional Democrats on the defense in the weeks before the 2008 election, and many Republicans – aided by the oil industry – are already using it to frame the White House for the rising gas-prices and falling oil-exploration. On Wednesday, for example, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee rolled out “The Putting the Gulf Back to Work Act.” The bill would speed up the permit process for oil-drillers, putting people back to work, and putting cheaper gas in their cars, Hastings announced.

GOP control of the House also prevents Democrats from diverting anger away from the president by staging media-magnified show-trials of oil-industry executives, Green said.

The administration’s P.R. offensive can bandage, but not heal the underlying problem. The Democrats’ influential environmental lobby and green-tech lobby oppose more oil-drilling and cheap gas, yet expensive gas is a major drain on many household budgets. Expensive gas means fewer votes for incumbents in Wisconsin, Virginia, South Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida West Virginia and other swing-states.

That worry was previewed March 11th, when the President used his press conference to describe his energy plans and signal his concern about gas prices. “Let me say a few words about something that’s obviously been on the minds of many Americans here at home, and that’s the price of gasoline… For Americans already facing a tough time, it’s an added burden.”

Despite the P.R. strategy and the media’s help, said Green, “generalized anger does not help the incumbent.”