Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has adopted $2.50 gasoline as a central tenet of his struggling campaign, criticizing Obama for holding up the pipeline project and mocking him as "President Algae" for highlighting research into developing oil and gas from algae.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, regularly notes his grandfather's work as a coal miner. And he detoured his campaign to tour oil fields in North Dakota recently, labeling himself the only ardent supporter of oil drilling.
"Instead of paying two-digit dollars you're now paying three digits," Santorum said in Illinois. "When you see that zero come up, when it gets into the $100 range, when you see that zero, think of 'O' for Obama because that's why you're paying that extra amount of money."
On Wednesday, Santorum campaigned at a company in Harvey, La., that services oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He pressed the administration to open more federal lands for leases that he says would both generate revenue for the government and boost U.S. oil production.
"Here's an opportunity for us in this country to do something about it: increasing jobs, lowering energy prices, decreasing the deficit, all of the things you would think he president of the United States would be for," Santorum said.
In many ways, the issue has come full circle for the president. In 2008, candidate Obama criticized an inside-the-Beltway culture for the rise in gasoline prices. "So what have we got for all that experience? Gas that's approaching $4 a gallon. Because you can fight all you want inside of Washington, but unless you change the way it works you won't be able to make the changes America needs," Obama said at an Indianapolis gas station in April 2008.
Now he's the president.
From the sprawling solar plant in Nevada, Obama's motorcade kicked up dust as it traveled into an oil field in New Mexico, where he promoted increased drilling on federal lands.
On Thursday, Obama will use Cushing, Okla., as a backdrop to highlight the decision by Calgary-based TransCanada to build a portion of the Keystone pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas. The 485-mile line from Cushing to Port Arthur, Texas, doesn't require presidential approval because the pipeline does not cross a U.S. border.
The White House announced Wednesday that Obama plans to fast-track the pipeline.
Administration officials have said the Oklahoma-to-Texas line could address an oil bottleneck at a Cushing storage hub, but the argument may not fly in Oklahoma, where President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain carried all 77 counties in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.
"It's a PR stunt and Oklahomans aren't buying it — the president is celebrating his failed energy policies in a community that will be hardest hit by them," said Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla.
Obama wraps up his trip with a stop in Ohio, a key state in November, where he will discuss advanced energy research and development at Ohio State University.
Obama has few options to dramatically alter gas prices. Beyond green-lighting Keystone or opening up more oil drilling in Alaska or in the Gulf of Mexico, Justice Department officials could accelerate efforts to crack down on speculation in the oil markets, a move that the administration has discussed.
The White House could also tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, something it has said it would do only along with action by other countries. The U.S. released oil from its reserve last summer but saw little impact. Oil prices dropped nearly 5 percent when the government announced the release of 30 million barrels from the SPR on July 23, but prices quickly rebounded and oil ended the year higher than it started.
"Is there a lot that can be done in the short term that can have a huge impact? The answer to that is no," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. Yet he cautioned, "I don't think a posture of simply saying that and being the voice of responsibility in a rising political clamor is going to serve the White House politically well."