The Washington Post

Obama can’t control gas prices...until he can?

Some on the right are fuming at President Obama for suggesting at a town hall Wednesday that he can't bring gas prices down yet — and that a questioner complaining about how much it costs to fill up might consider getting a more fuel-efficient car.

In the heating-up gas-price debate, neither party has policies that can control the price of gasoline, but each pretends that it does.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) tells Glenn Reynolds: “Instead of changing his policies, President Obama is trying to blame the American people for skyrocketing gas prices by saying they should trade-in their cars.”

As if changing policy in the way Republicans prefer — more domestic drilling — would have any effect any time soon on a massive world oil market dominated by a cartel America doesn't control. Sure, drill more. But recognize that new leases on currently protected federal lands wouldn’t produce oil for years, and America isn’t exactly Saudi Arabia, anyway. Regardless, as developing nations continue, well, developing, world energy demand will continue to shoot up, exerting upward pressure on prices.

And then there’s Barbour’s dismissive tone about efficiency, as though burning more oil than you need to isn’t a problem. Except Obama's suggestion to his gas-guzzling questioner is entirely rational: Gas prices are high. I can’t do anything about what you’re paying. Perhaps the government and consumers should find ways not to waste so much of this precious commodity?

But Obama wasn’t entirely consistent with that logic, either, on Wednesday. The rhetoric the president has used to describe his new energy plan, which emphasizes cutting oil use, implies that American activity can, in fact, stabilize world oil prices in “a couple of years.”

“Gas prices?” the president said, “They're still going to fluctuate until we can start making these broader changes, and that's going to take a couple years to have serious effect.” As if gas prices wouldn't be fluctuating if we had adopted the Obama plan a couple of years ago. Americans need not be quite as exposed to the vagaries of the world oil market as they are, but neither the president nor American consumers can force the market not to be volatile.

With gas prices up, both parties have a huge incentive to promise that they will bring costs back down. All the more reason to treat claims that they can with heaps of skepticism.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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