Obama hits gas, rolls over Joe’s toes

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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An increasingly defensive President Barack Obama scheduled another energy speech for the same day that Vice President Joe Biden delivers the first of several hard-edged speeches in the Midwest.

High energy prices threaten to stall the economy and alienate swing-voters, especially in midwestern states, where long commutes and scant pay-raises focus public discontent on the gas needle.

So far, Obama’s extensive efforts to sell Americans on his long-term alternatives to oil haven’t trumped the public’s desire for cheap gas now.

He pushed his increasingly partisan message again Thursday to a rapturous camera-friendly audience at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md.

“If there’s one thing we’re thinking a lot about these days… the question of energy… it’s energy — how do we use less energy and produce more right here in the United States of America,” he said at the morning rally, prompting loud agreement from the supportive audience.

“You don’t have an option, you’ve got to fill up that gas tank and when prices spike on the world market, it’s like a tax, it’s like someone going into your pocket,” he said, eliciting a response from the audience of mostly African-Americans.

Even as he pushed the disputed claim that his administration has boosted oil drilling in the country, he called for tax increases on oil companies, slammed their profit-making and portrayed gasoline as “the energy of the past.”

Obama also touted his controversial bet on new technologies amid stepped-up ridicule from critics who doubt his spending will increase energy efficiency. “If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society… there have always been folks who are the naysayers who don’t believe in the future,” Obama declared.

The hard-nosed presidential pitch, however, overshadowed Joe Biden’s speech in Toledo, Ohio, which is the first of several in midwestern states that will portray the November election as a choice between a caring Obama and an uncaring Mitt Romney.

White House PR officials rarely schedule two major conflicting events on the same day.

Still, Biden’s sharp rhetoric complements Obama’s dismissal of his critics.

This election is “a choice between a system that’s rigged, and one that’s fair, a system that holds someone who misleads investors as accountable as someone who misses a payment on a mortgage, a system that trusts the workers on the line, instead of just listening to the folks in the suites,” Biden will say, according to a summary released by the Obama campaign.

Biden’s description of the election as a choice is intended to displace the GOP’s preference for an election that is a referendum on Obama’s term in office.

Re-election battles are usually viewed by the public as referendums. That would be a GOP advantage in November, because the swing-voting public has already made clear its dislike of Obama’s economic policies, his high spending, reform of the health care sector and regulation of churches.

Yet Republicans are using the gas price issue to portray Obama as uncaring about the public’s priorities.

They’re focusing public attention on his failed subsidies for green-tech projects, such as the bankrupt solar-tech company Solyndra, and on Obama’s election-year opposition to the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried Canadian oil to U.S. refineries.

“The President simply can’t claim to have a comprehensive approach to energy, because he doesn’t,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Mar. 7. “Any time he says he does, the American people should remember one word: Keystone,” he added.

Last week, Senate GOP leaders forced a vote on a measure that would allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That paid off, when the White House admitted that Obama lobbied Senate Democrats to vote against the measure.

Obama’s lobbying succeeded, giving the GOP another opportunity to portray the Democrats as uncaring.

Obama’s frustration with the public’s desire for cheaper gas has prompted him to complain that voters expect him to quickly reduce gas prices.

But in 2008, Obama dinged then President George W. Bush for a doubling in gas prices.

Although gas prices are high, and may go higher, it isn’t clear that Obama’s recent polling dip is caused by gas prices.

A March Washington Post poll showed that 36 percent of respondents said the fuel price increases had caused serious financial hardship, and 27 percent said it had caused “not serious” hardship.

But that’s almost exactly the same level of discontent as in May 2004, when President Bush was launching his successful re-election campaign.

Obama’s basic pitch is that government policy can produce new autos that require less gas, and so keep gas bills steady amid periodic price spikes.

The administration is “promoting an all-hands-on-deck, all-of-the-above approach to American energy and building a more secure energy future,” claimed Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president. Those measures include lower oil imports, more fuel-efficient auto engines and new technologies for energy production, such as solar technology, she said Mar. 12 at a White House press conference.

But GOP legislators and allies argue the administration is undercutting the oil industry by denying construction of new pipelines — such as the now rejected Keystone XL pipeline — and by trying to raise industry taxes and constrict access to untapped oil fields.

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