The Denver Post: Republicans shift to rising gas prices in effort to beat Obama as economy and his polls grow stronger

February 29, 2012
In The News




Faced with a recuperating economy and poll numbers that show Americans feel better about the country's direction, Republicans are beginning to pivot messaging from the bad economy to another issue pressing on the wallet of nearly every American: gas prices.


In the past few weeks, the average price of a gallon of gas has climbed almost 20 cents to a little more than $3 in the Denver area.


"We need to deal with the energy prices now, put this country back to work to reduce the pain at the pump. We can do it in our own backyard; we can do it with American jobs, creating good jobs," Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said Tuesday with House Republican leadership at the U.S. Capitol.


GOP strategists say that shifting the conversation from "I need a job" to "pain at the pump" is not a total non sequitur. They go hand in hand: Rising gas prices often spike inflation in fragile economic climates and affect everything from the cost of a gallon of milk to the price of a new helicopter purchased by the U.S. military.


"The truth of the matter is, while the president doesn't control everything about gas prices and everything about the price of gasoline, he could do and could have been doing more," said Mike McKenna, a GOP adviser and energy expert. "His administration has done everything to retard the production of oil."


Several GOP presidential candidates have recently brought up gas prices and domestic energy production on the campaign trail. Newt Gingrich has almost completely abandoned messaging on the bad economy in favor of talking about oil production.

Gas prices strike a chord with a particular set of voters that both sides are desperately trying to win: suburbanites.


"The opposition party always tries to make political hay out of gas prices. In some ways it's a time-honored tradition," said University of Colorado political scientist Ken Bickers.

Mac Clouse, a finance professor at the Daniels School of Business at the University of Denver, agreed.


"From a political standpoint, you need to find something to criticize, and gas prices are so wide-reaching, such a sensitive topic," he said. "Every consumer is impacted by it. The economy could be bad because there is a 9 percent unemployment rate, but if you don't happen to be in that 9 percent unemployed, that is a problem that's not affecting you. ... Going to a gas station affects everyone."


The truth is there is very little a president can do to affect gas prices in the short term except tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which opens up more supply. Republicans decry that solution - done before in the Obama administration - as a political gimmick.


"This is a genuine concern I've had for years; it's not a matter of convenience or politics," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "I've tried to do everything I can think of to bring more energy production on line."

White House officials point out that domestic oil production is at an all-time high and that overall oil imports have fallen as a share of total consumption from 57 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2011 - the lowest since 1995.


In a speech last week in Miami, President Barack Obama pushed an "all of the above" approach to energy policy, stressing reliance not just more on the domestic side but also increasing federal investment in alternative energy technology.

But Republicans say Americans are relying on foreign sources less because of efforts made by companies on private lands - not because the administration has been particularly friendly to drilling on public lands.


Domestic energy production is at an all-time low on public lands and offshore, said Gardner, who is a member of the energy and commerce committee.

"The president is trying to have it both ways," Gardner said.

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