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Right Turn
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 04/27/2011

The White House grasps for a life raft

Let’s be candid here: President Obama’s approval ratings are on the skids, his over-hyped budget talk was widely panned by all but his most devoted followers, and gas prices are taking a hit on his standing and prospects for reelection. The Post reported earlier this week:

Obama, like previous presidents in times of high oil prices, is taking a hit. Only 39 percent of those who call gas prices a “serious financial hardship” approve of the way he is doing his job, and 33 percent of them say he’s doing a good job on the economy.

The Energy Information Administration said Monday that gas prices climbed last week to $3.88 a gallon, up 81 cents since the start of the year. That is the highest pump price since August 2008, before the financial meltdown.

Evidence of motorists’ hardships is littering the roads. AAA says the number of motorists running out of gas has been surging. John Townsend, a spokesman for the automobile association, said that cash-strapped members “are pushing the envelope” and that emergency gas deliveries to stranded members jumped nationwide, including by 40 percent in the District.

That sort of hardship could slow Obama’s reelection campaign. The Post-ABC poll shows that 60 percent of independents who say they’ve been hit hard by surging gas prices also say they definitely won’t support Obama in his bid for reelection.

In a hypothetical matchup with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the top GOP performer in the Post-ABC poll, Romney wins by 24 points among the independents who have taken a severe financial hit because of gas prices, and the president is up 7 percentage points among other independents.

At a fundraiser in Southern California last week, where pump prices are the highest in the country, Obama acknowledged the political peril of high gas prices. He said, “My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people.”

So as has become his practice, Obama looked for a gimmick or a gambit rather than a serious policy solution. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave him an opening when Boehner said he might consider doing away with some subsidies or tax breaks for oil companies. (“It’s certainly something we ought to be looking at. We’re in a time when the federal government is short on revenues. We need to control spending, but we need to have revenues to keep the government moving. And they ought to be paying their fair share.”) So as The Hill newspaper put it, Obama “pounced.” Yes, let’s raise those taxes, Obama’s political hacks responded.

But this is silliness squared. Boehner isn’t about to raise more taxes, although he has already helped pass a budget that seeks to broaden and simplify the tax code. Boehner’s spokesman made it clear that the president’s pounce was misdirected: “Boehner believes, as he stated in the interview, that expanding American energy production will help lower gas prices and create more American jobs. We’ll look at any reasonable policy that lowers gas prices. Unfortunately, what the president has suggested so far would simply raise taxes and increase the price at the pump.” (A spokesman today also told me, on the related media contrivance, that the speaker wasn’t backing away from the budget he got passed. The spokesman says that there is “no daylight” between Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. He added, “Boehner’s plan — our plan — is Ryan’s plan.”)

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was clear on where Republicans stand:

“The President’s latest call to raise taxes on U.S. energy is as predictable as it is counterproductive. If someone in the administration can show me that raising taxes on American energy production will lower gas prices and create jobs, then I will gladly discuss it. But since nobody can, and the President’s letter to Congress today doesn’t, this is merely an attempt to deflect from the policies of the past two years. Instead of returning again and again to tax hikes that increase consumers’ costs, the administration and its Democrat allies in Congress should open their eyes to the vast energy resources we have right here at home and to the hundreds of thousands of jobs that opening them up could create. If the President were truly serious about lowering the price of gas at the pump, he would open these areas to development, stop penalizing American job creation with new fees and tax hikes, and call an end to the anti-energy crusade at the Environmental Protection Agency.”

And that really is the nub of it. Obama’s gamesmanship and a plan to hike taxes on oil companies (which, of course, will pass them on to consumers) are non sequiturs. Ben Smith dryly observed “It’s not immediately clear how raising taxes on the industry would lower the price at the pump.” Forget “immediately.” It’s once again a herky-jerky, nonsubstantive response to a serious issue.

After all the back-and-forth it didn’t seem that the White House had gained any ground. A senior Senate GOP aide put it this way, “I think in the end, both Boehner and McConnell said the same thing today: no tax hikes on American energy consumption. But the reaction from the White House and [Sen. Chuck] Schumer to last night’s interview [with Boehner] shows how desperate they are to get away from an issue that they put themselves in.” Sort of like giving a speech to criticize Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, but offering only tax hikes and another commission, huh?

The White House is kidding itself if it thinks this childishness is going to work with voters. They look at the results (gas prices, unemployment, the debt, foreign policy crises) not the rhetorical food fight. But since Obama’s results are very poor, you can understand why he spends his days trying to score political points.

By  |  10:00 AM ET, 04/27/2011

 
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