The high cost at the pump could turn into an election-year mess for the president, whose approval ratings have surged recently as the economy improved. Republicans, sensing an opportunity, have blamed Obama for not giving oil companies greater freedom to drill for new U.S. supplies that might ease prices.
The political dynamics are muddied by the Iran factor. In their debate Wednesday, the leading GOP presidential candidates vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Yet the rise in oil prices recently has been augmented by the tightening of U.S. and European sanctions on Iran and its oil exports.
Some Democrats are also urging Obama, who has pressured other nations to curtail purchases of Iranian oil, to protect consumers by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as he did during the Libyan conflict last summer. Most presidents are reluctant to tap the reserve without a dire emergency, and many experts believed the release last year had a fleeting impact on gas prices.
The recent climb in pump prices resembles the 2008 oil spike, when, as a presidential candidate, Obama used the increase to rally support for a renewable-energy agenda. Since then, oil prices have collapsed with the economy and then soared again with the recovery. U.S. oil and gas production has begun increasing substantially for the first time in more than two decades. But the United States still imports about half of its petroleum needs.
In an appearance Thursday at the University of Miami, where he toured an engineering program for energy efficiency, Obama told a crowd of hundreds of students that his GOP rivals who are pledging to slash prices are “rooting for bad news” to win political points.
“Since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for $2 gas. I’ll save you the suspense: Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling,” Obama said. “Well, the American people aren’t stupid. You know that’s not a plan. . . . It’s a strategy to get politicians through an election. You know there are no quick fixes to this problem, and you know we can’t just drill our to lower prices.”
Obama argued that his “all of the above” energy policy — promoting increased domestic production, improved fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and greater investment in clean energy innovation — is the smartest way to insulate the United States from the vagaries of the global oil market.
“There is no silver bullet. There never has been,” Obama said. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to make phony election-year promises about lower gas prices.”