As gasoline prices climb, President Obama's poll numbers plummet. In February, a Washington Post/ABC poll had Obama up 6 points against Mitt Romney. Monday's poll has him down 2. According to the polls, gas prices are a huge part of the story, particularly given how the last 30 days or so have not exactly been great for the GOP.
No wonder Obama is desperate to get out in front of the issue. The dilemma is that he's invested so much of his prestige in his energy policies that he can't admit those policies have been an abject failure. But he also can't have people thinking his policies are responsible for the energy price Americans care about most: gasoline.
"Despite the gains we've made, today's high gas prices are a painful reminder that there's much more work to do to free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil and take control of our energy future," the president declared Monday in a statement on the one-year anniversary of his "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future."
"Obama desperately wants people to think he's against higher gas prices — at least until he gets reelected."
Let's take the second proposition first. Obama often says, "Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years." That's true: It's also true that under Obama's administration, Snooki from "Jersey Shore" got pregnant and Charlie Sheen lost his job. And he can take about as much credit for those developments too.
Never mind that if he'd gotten the cap-and-trade proposals he campaigned on, energy prices would be even worse. (He once acknowledged that under his proposals, electricity prices would "skyrocket" and coal companies would go bankrupt. His Energy secretary, Steven Chu, admitted he wanted America to emulate European gas prices, when they were about $8 per gallon.)
The boom in oil production has taken place almost entirely on private and state lands, while on federal lands it's dropped (11% from 2010 to 2011 alone). The administration has also slowed the permitting of offshore oil and gas development to a trickle.
Another major factor is the development of new technologies that make it possible to extract ever-more fuel from domestic sources. Instead of words of support, Obama keeps telling those companies they need to be taxed more and have their subsidies yanked.
Ending subsidies to business entirely, including oil companies, is a good idea. But Obama's policy is completely different. He thinks he's smarter than the market and can pick winning industries and products.
It's an ugly record. Forget Solyndra — and other solar and wind firms that have been going belly up like birds around a windmill — that's old news. So is his decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline.
Last year, the Energy Department awarded a $10-million "L Prize" for development of an affordable and eco-friendly light bulb. Phillips just put its winning model on the market, for $50 apiece. Meanwhile, GM has temporarily suspended production of the Volt because of lack of demand for the "affordable" electric car.
On the unaffordable end of the market, things are even worse. Consumer Reports tried to test drive the new $107,850 Fisker Karma, but it couldn't. "We buy about 80 cars a year, and this is the first time in memory that we have had a car that is undriveable before it has finished our check-in process."
There's actually plenty Obama could do to help with gas prices, but he's right not to do some of them. He shouldn't release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, nor should he appease Iran on its nuclear program. But he could suspend the Jones Act, which requires that all ships carrying goods between American ports be U.S. flagged. Doing so would dramatically lower the cost to distribute oil and gas.
Obama was recently asked by Fox News' Ed Henry whether high gas prices are a deliberate result of White House policies. His response was telling. "From a political perspective, do you think the president of the United States going into reelection wants gas prices to go up higher? Is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense?"
In other words, Obama desperately wants people to think he's against higher gas prices — at least until he gets reelected.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at AEI.