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GOP Ploy -- Use Pain at the Pump to Tank Obama

04/27/2011 06:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

President Obama put it best when he said that it never fails when gas prices surge that politicians run to the cameras and pontificate about doing whatever it takes to get the prices back down. Obama didn't add that the politicians did it again with the latest gas price surge, but the target they choose to pummel for the price surge isn't BP, oil spills, OPEC, or Middle Eastern turmoil. The target is Obama.

The GOP certainly wasted no time in hitting the cameras and claiming that Obama's policies of limits on drilling and increased energy taxes are to blame for American motorists' pain at the pump. It's a good and predictable political line. But the truth about oil prices is much more complex and it's doubtful that one president, his party or, for that matter, any Washington politician, including those in the GOP, can do much about it.

Oil prices have surged in part because of rampant and unregulated commodities speculation, jitters over the political unrest in the Middle East, and producers' cutbacks in drilling and production. Politicians take advantage of the situation and make their opponents look bad. In this case the GOP is throwing mud at the White House and hoping some of it sticks in the voter's minds. The peril is, of course, that some of it if just might.

Obama flatly blamed his recent dip in the polls on the surging gas prices. It's unfair, but Obama knows enough about the history of how things work. When voters have to pay more for anything they need to blame someone and that someone is more often than not the president. Politics and energy, just as politics and the economy, have been hopelessly muddled and entangled during every election cycle.

The tested and true political rule of thumb is that when the economy goes sour during the last years of a president's term, that president is almost always defeated. When energy prices -- and it means gas prices in voters' mind -- go up, it can hurt any president. And he must move quickly to tamp down the discontent before it becomes a tidal surge of voters resentment.

President Nixon did just that in 1973, when many gas pumps ran dry during the Arab oil embargo. He publicly declared that America's target was "project independence" that would wean America off of Mideastern oil and put the nation on the road to energy independence. The instant that the crisis passed, so did all the talk about energy independence. For the next three decades, America's thirst for foreign oil did not slacken one drop. The United States uses more foreign oil products than any other nation.

Obama has hit back on several familiar fronts to counter GOP attacks. He renewed his call for big increases in alternative fuel sources, more domestic drilling and an end to the billions in subsidies to the oil and gas industries.

And the president didn't stop there. He used a tactic that George W. Bush used in 2006, when gas ran up to the then-unheard of high of $3 a gallon. He angrily declared that the nation wouldn't stand for any price gouging at the pump and promised a probe. But when gas prices followed the predictable cycle and dropped it was the end of that.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama himself lambasted oil speculation and pledged to close the loophole that allowed oil futures to be traded in unregulated markets in 2008. About one-third of all trading in U.S. oil futures is unregulated. Obama also called for legislation to give Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice full power to investigate price manipulation in the oil market. The measure would also boost the regulatory power of the CFTC over oil futures trading. That didn't happen then.

But now that the GOP has jumped all over the gas price issue, and made him the fall guy, Obama quickly ordered the Justice Department to form a task force to ferret out any fraud or manipulation in the oil market. That's a long, slow, tortuous and, frankly, a politically ineffectual process that would hardly silence GOP tirades about the president driving up gas prices and the public's unhappiness.

In the next few weeks, with summer near and more motorists expected to hit the road, this almost always means even more hikes in prices. Obama will be forced to talk more and more about energy independence and shoving down gas prices. The GOP won't beat Obama with the gas price issue. But the ploy will cause nervous moments for the White House and deflect attention from the GOP's abysmal failure to come up with anything better to ease the pain at the pump.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He hosts a national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on blogtalkradio.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com.
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