President Bush and challenger John F. Kerry sparred Saturday over the spike in gasoline prices, with the Republican incumbent calling for increased energy exploration in Alaska and the Democrat arguing for new attention to alternative fuels.
With average gasoline prices exceeding $2 per gallon and few predicting significant relief before the November election, the matter has gained new political importance and become an area of concern in an otherwise improving economy. In dueling radio addresses, the two candidates outlined their views of energy policy.
Bush, who was in Austin on Saturday to celebrate his daughter Jenna's graduation from the University of Texas, spoke of his 2001 energy legislation, which emphasized expanded domestic production and called for exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "This national strategy would help make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy," Bush said. "Yet, these measures have been repeatedly blocked by members of the Senate, and American consumers are paying the price."
Kerry, who has been a leader of the opposition to drilling in the refuge, agreed that the problem was too much reliance on foreign oil but offered a different remedy. The Massachusetts senator proposed tax incentives for makers and buyers of fuel-efficient vehicles and more government spending on alternative fuels. "Let's ensure that no young American soldier has to fight and die because of our dependence on foreign oil," Kerry said. "This is the great project for our generation."
The two also offered different short-term remedies for the spike in prices. Bush said the Energy Department has set up a hotline to collect complaints about price gouging and is meeting with worldwide oil producers "on actions they can take to help the U.S. and global economy." He also said the administration has changed regulations to allow the "expansion of the nation's petroleum refineries."
Kerry said the United States should "demand" increased oil production from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. He renewed his call for diverting oil going to replenish the government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a proposal Bush has rejected.
In Amsterdam on Saturday, OPEC ministers expressed "deep concern" about the high oil prices, which have exceeded $40 a barrel for crude in the United States. But the ministers postponed action on a Saudi proposal to raise production quotas.
With Memorial Day and the summer driving season approaching, the Kerry campaign has sought to elevate the issue of gas prices. The candidate has highlighted the issue several times in recent days, and in his radio address tied the issue to economic and military strength. "First, soaring energy prices are putting our economy at risk, and second, our dependence on Middle East oil is putting our national security at risk," he said.
Bush sought to focus attention on more encouraging elements of the economy. He noted that the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.3 percent to 5.6 percent since last June, and that 288,000 jobs were added in April.
Bush also mentioned Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Michigan -- all potentially competitive electoral states -- as the top job gainers in April, and he claimed some credit. "These gains are the result of the hard work of Americans -- and a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda that begins with tax relief," he said.