By and large, there’s not a whole lot the president can do to influence gasoline prices. Even so, for years the conventional view was that voters blamed the president anyway. But that all seems to be changing. Jared Bernstein gives a recent Washington Post poll the chart treatment:
Back in September 2005, gas prices surged to $2.90 per gallon across the country ($3.50 in today’s dollars), largely because Hurricane Katrina had shut down production across the Gulf of Mexico — an event that couldn’t plausibly be blamed on Bush. Yet 28 percent of Americans still blamed the president anyway. (Of course, one explanation is that voters were expressing discontent with the way the Bush administration handled the aftermath of Katrina.)
This time around, meanwhile, gas prices are even higher — the national average is now $3.74 per gallon — largely due to tight supplies and tensions between the United States and Iran (and the latter situation is something the White House actually is heavily involved with). Yet only 18 percent of Americans say the president’s responsible for pump prices. The number of Americans who are refusing to assign blame has jumped. Who knows? Perhaps after years of high gas prices a sense of fatalism has set in.
This jibes with political science research finding that, for the most part, a president’s re-election doesn’t hinge on the price of gasoline. Of course, that doesn’t mean that gas prices are meaningless — or that Obama can breathe easy about the situation. If spiking oil prices end up biting into economic growth, then the president’s prospects for re-election really would start sinking. As always, the economy matters a lot.