Motorists have responded to rising pump prices by driving fewer miles in more efficient vehicles. They've conserved so much fuel this year that they've effectively reduced gasoline spending even though a gallon is an average of 32 cents higher than it was a year ago, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.
"Gas prices really choked the consumer in 2008," Kloza said. "This year I'm not so sure."
Retailers have begun to worry that higher gas prices will eventually force many consumers to cut back.
"If gas prices do start (going) upward again and creeping back up to $4 and $5, I think that is going to be a problem for our customer," Charles Holley, Wal-Mart's chief financial officer, said this month.
Some trends in the economy should cushion the impact of higher gas prices. Americans saved more last year. That gives them some leeway to pay for costlier gas out of savings rather than cutting spending in other areas.
Easing the impact further, other energy prices have fallen even as gas costs have soared. The price of natural gas to residential consumers has dropped an average of 8 percent a year since 2009.
Consumers saved more money in January from lower natural gas and electricity prices than they paid in higher gas costs, Christopher said.
The price of gasoline will likely follow developments in Iran. Continued sparring between Iran and the West means prices will keep going up. But if Iran adopts a more conciliatory tone, oil and gasoline prices could tumble.
The outcome will help determine the U.S. elections in November. Obama has been under pressure to do something to ease prices even as the economy is producing its best job growth since the recession ended.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week found that 59 percent of voters disapproved of the way Obama has handled the economy. A month ago, the same poll found that 53 percent disapproved.
Obama's Republican opponents have criticized him for blocking efforts to expand drilling in restricted areas of the Gulf of Mexico and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. In a TV interview this week, front-runner Mitt Romney said Obama should "absolutely" be held responsible for the higher prices because "he has not pursued policies that convince the world that America is going to become energy secure, energy independent."
The Obama administration argues that oil and gas prices are set by global demand and that those who promise a quick fix are lying to voters.
Associated Press Business Writers Anne D'Innocenzio and Chris Kahn in New York and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.