Few issues have more of an impact on voters than the rising cost of gasoline. Soaring prices at the pump make commuting more expensive and put a crimp in motorists' vacation plans. Businesses that rely on gasoline often raise prices to keep pace and are sometimes forced to limit expansion and hiring. At another level, high gas prices suggest that America's fate is not in its own hands, that the country's way of life is at the mercy of oil-rich nations that mean us harm or don't care about our well-being.
That's why so many politicians in Washington are suddenly jumping on the gas-price issue. The stakes are particularly high for President Obama, who is up for re-election next year. Some of the lowest presidential approval ratings have been recorded when there was a "gas crisis," either shortages or high prices or both, according to Gallup. This happened to President Richard Nixon in 1973, President Jimmy Carter in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1990, and George W. Bush in 2005. Americans of a certain age remember vividly one of the worst gasoline-related crises in recent history, when oil shortages resulted in long lines at filling stations across the country during the mid-1970s. No one wants to go through that again.
Obama acknowledged the problem at his news conference on March 11. He said rising gasoline prices could limit economic growth and are already reducing the stimulative effect of the payroll tax cut that he signed into law last December. "Gas prices are hurting individuals right now and obviously taking some of that tax cut that we gave them and forcing them to use it on gas, as opposed to buying other items," Obama said. He added that he might tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supply. He knows that the only thing worse than soaring prices for gasoline would be not having enough gas to go around.
Gas prices are approaching a two-year high. The national average for a gallon of regular in mid-March was $3.56, an increase of 44 cents within a month. The turmoil in the Middle East is causing industry analysts to predict further spikes, probably to over $4 per gallon. The Japanese earthquake could have a similar effect, some analysts say, as that nation struggles to replace the power formerly generated by damaged nuclear reactors with other sources, including oil.
And the politicians in the United States are pointing fingers. Some want to penalize oil companies, others want to increase domestic production, and still others see the answer in alternative fuels to replace oil.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, says $4 per gallon will be "a wake-up call" and urged Congress to end tax breaks for big oil companies. Durbin and other Democrats also criticized House Republicans for proposing to reduce federal funding for research into ways to expand alternative energy.
But House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters, "While the Obama administration claims to be committed to American energy production, the facts and its own actions say otherwise." Boehner said the administration has shut down new energy production in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Actually, the Interior Department earlier this month approved two permits allowing resumption of drilling on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Those rigs had stopped operations after the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill last April. But Obama critics say it isn't enough. Sen. John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, blamed the Obama administration for failing to allow a much fuller development of America's energy resources. "Gas prices have doubled under Obama," Kyl said, "and one of the reasons is because he has not issued drilling permits." Some legislators are extending the debate to attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency for moving to impose what the critics say would be costly regulations on greenhouse gases. Instead, they say the government should be working to develop domestic energy resources.