President Obama has two energy problems – one is political and one is practical. And he's not doing a very good job solving either.
Besides the economy, there's wide consensus among election watchers that thanks to sky high gas prices and the high-profile yet unpopular decision to deny an oil pipeline project, the incumbent Democrat is most vulnerable to attacks on energy policy.
"To this day, Obama has not done anything that appears to be practical," says Gerald Shuster, a communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "He's done nothing that's tangible that says to the general public, 'I really am trying to provide you with an alternative to get these gas costs down where it's manageable for your budget.'"
Obama recently took a tour through energy producing states out west to highlight a variety of innovations and just this week announced a proposal to strengthen the regulatory agency in charge of cracking down on oil speculation in financial markets. But experts say these moves have done little to move the political calculus and ultimately won't impact the price at the pump.
Republicans, meanwhile, are making the most of the president's predicament by highlighting the fact that gas prices have doubled on his watch and reminding voters at every turn that his administration denied approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline proposal—which a majority of Americans supported—that would have increased domestic oil production and resulted in hundreds of thousands of jobs.
"The president's goal here isn't to do something about the problem, it's to make people think he's doing something about the problem until the next crisis comes along," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor this week when speaking about Obama's moves to crack down on market speculation.
"And that's the problem. We've got a president who's more concerned with looking like he's doing something than in actually doing what's needed to tackle the challenges we face," McConnell said.
Senior White House officials, speaking on background during a press call earlier this week, maintained that Obama has instructed his administration to look at all opportunities available to alleviate high gas prices.
"We're going to do everything we can at the federal level to streamline and harmonize regulations to make sure that when there are pipeline projects that would be in the interest of increasing domestic consumption in a responsible way, we're going to do that," one official said.
The White House also highlighted the fact that domestic oil and gas production is at an all-time high for the first time in 13 years.
Rayola Dougher, senior economic advisor for the American Petroleum Institute, says that's thanks to technological innovations, not support from Obama's policies.
"We've been generally disappointed with the policies because it really hasn't helped to enhance oil and natural gas production in the United States and that's what we're very interested to see," Dougher says. "Whenever they've had a choice, they've actually taken the choice to slow down permitting and slow down the leasing process. What we're seeing nationwide is technological innovation and being able to go after – it's the shale development of primarily oil and natural gas that's making a big, big difference."
But Paul Bledsoe, senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, says Obama's actual record on energy lines up pretty closely with what both Republicans and Democrats support.
"I kind of find this a little bit ironic, because on many of the major issues, there's actually a lot of agreement," he says. In the last six or so years, Bledsoe says, Republicans have shown support for fuel economy standards and Democrats for offshore oil drilling – a reversal for each party that used to vehemently oppose those policies.
The Keystone decision that has become such a flashpoint is really an outlier for Obama, he adds.