After Slight Respite, Higher Gas Prices Ahead

Higher gas prices are hitting consumers at the pump, and the president at the polls.

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Between $4.00 and $6.00. That's the price per gallon of gasoline most Americans say would force them to make major lifestyle changes or significantly cut back on spending, according to a recent Gallup poll.

While fuel costs have yet to breach that lofty high nationally—on average gasoline costs $3.81 a gallon, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report—experts say it's not out of the question many other cities will see prices in that neighborhood as summer approaches.

Prices have already surged past the $4 mark in Hawaii, California, Alaska, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., and a handful of other states including Connecticut, New York, and Michigan, could see those levels later this week.

And while the price at the pump is the most visible victim of volatility in the Middle East, speculation on Wall Street, and crimped refinery capacity, it won't be long before consumers start seeing the impact of higher fuel costs in everything from the price of a loaf of bread to their pizza delivery surcharge.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.]

"[Consumers] may not pay as close attention to the price of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, because when they buy that they have a cart full of other items," says Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com. "When you go to the gas station, you're going to a gas station just for gas and when you're pumping gas you're looking at that price and it's burning into your brain."

"People are constantly aware of the change," he adds.

But after several months of steady hikes in gas prices, businesses have to pass on the higher costs to the consumer at some point. Many companies have held off in large part to remain competitive in a weak economy, Laskoski says.

"Nobody wants to be the first one [to raise prices]," he says.

Gas price increases have leveled off a bit recently, but if consumers continue to see prices climb, they could clam up at the registers. "At $4.50 [a gallon], I think that's going to be the next threshold at which people really start assessing spending," Laskoski says. "In many instances [consumers] don't have a whole lot of leeway to change their driving habits. They drive to work and they have to take care of their errands."

[Read: Newt's $2.50 Gas Pledge: Plausible or A Bunch of Baloney?]

Despite President Obama's insistence that he—or any other president—has little control over oil and gas prices, Americans overwhelmingly want the government to step in to control rising fuel costs, according to Gallup.

Rising prices at the pump have caused Obama to take a hit at the polls, and that puts him on precarious political ground heading into an election year. A New York Times/CBS poll released Monday showed Obama's approval rating dropped dramatically in recent weeks, with 41 percent of respondents approving of the job he's doing and 47 percent disapproving.

According to the New York Times, just a month ago Obama had 50 percent approval among survey respondents, seemingly lifted by encouraging news that the economy was improving.

Regardless, consumers should brace for more price increases at the pump in the coming weeks and months.

"There has been a brief respite, but don't be fooled by that," Laskoski says. "It's only March 13 and we're looking at a national average at $3.76 a gallon. That's awfully high and we have a long way to go."

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley