Barack Obama Can't Do Much About Gas Prices

Presidents have nowhere near as much power as people assume.

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Wouldn't it be great if gasoline prices were down to $2.50 a gallon? Even those of us who don't have cars are affected by high (by U.S. standards) gas prices, since so many things—air travel, the cost of transporting food and other goods—is affected by the cost of gas. And wouldn't it be great if the president could just make it happen?

Unfortunately, the president can't make gas prices drop on his or her own, or it would have been done already. Despite GOP speculation that President Obama actually wants gas prices to be prohibitively high to encourage people to conserve energy, the president—as he pointed out in his recent news conference—would have to be bent on career suicide to wish for higher gas prices in an election year.

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

Newt Gingrich is hardly alone in making promises he can't keep; presidential candidates in both major parties (including Obama in 2008) do that. Most of us understand that the promises are largely aspirational, that they are indicators of the vision the candidate has for the country (lower taxes, controlling global warming, universal healthcare), and not really items anyone can promise to deliver. Gingrich, as a former Speaker of the House (and third in line to the presidency) should know better, since he was on the front line of the battles between the executive and legislative branches. But with the current, persnickety Congress, the chances of achieving campaign promises—for anyone—are even lower.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is Obama to Blame for High Gas Prices?]

The frustrating truth for presidents is that they actually have nowhere near as much power as people assume. And what's unfair is that the public, as well as political foes who know how government works, expect the president to wave a wand and make all sorts of things happen that are either beyond his control or subject to rejection by the legislative or judicial branches. GOP candidates point out that it is the private sector that creates jobs, and that is largely true. But they also blame Obama for the high unemployment rate, and voters in need of a bogeyman do the same. Gasoline prices are even less in the control of the president, since pricing trends are affected by a myriad of factors, including foreign politics. Domestic issues are also subject to dismissal or amendment by Congress, and there's little the president can do to get around it. The one thing the president can do, since he is commander-in-chief, is to bomb another country—and even that is, technically at least, subject to congressional approval. Once military action is undertaken (with or without a direct authorization from Congress), there's no guarantee that the aftermath will go as hoped, as we have seen in the Middle East.

Gingrich is seeking to hold the most powerful position in the country. If he succeeds, he may find out how limited his power really is.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.
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