The Obama Watch

Obama’s Pain in the Gas Only Gets Worse

One issue alone can undermine the president's populist re-election narrative.

By 4.12.12

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Never underestimate the efficacy of simplicity when it comes to presidential politics. The Obama Administration need have no other reason to fear high gas prices. However, the Administration also has a particular concern that high pump prices threaten -- as no other issue does -- the populist narrative it wants to put on its reelection. 

High gas prices are already big news. A Pew poll released late last month (3/21, 1,009 respondents, M.O.E. +/- 3.1%) showed their increase the most closely followed story and that 52% were following the story very closely. Gallup's 3/22 poll (1,024 adults, M.O.E. +/-3.1%) showed respondents approved building the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas by 2-1 (57%-29%). 

 High gas prices also don't look to stop being news anytime soon either. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, March's nationwide price per gallon was $3.85 -- that's the highest March price on record. It was up 27 cents from the previous month, which was the highest February on record, which followed the highest January. The last time monthly prices weren't the highest on record was September of last year.

While gas prices would seem to be just one of many continually fluctuating economic variables, they have a disproportionate impact. Certainly, they have a pervasive economic impact, but nothing compared to their political impact -- particularly in this election.

 For one thing, gas prices are simple to understand and in politics, simple is good. Americans "get" high gas prices. Most fill up weekly. They pass the price signs multiple times a day -- almost watching them increase. Gas prices ripple through everything Americans buy, squeezing out the other things they want to buy. In America, gas is a necessity, not a luxury, and we have no alternative but to pay it.

Each election offers campaigns many issues and a few possible themes. Over a contest's course, each camp tries many, hoping one connects with voters. Most don't and every miss is a lost opportunity of resources and voters' attention. High gas prices are already connecting, which means Republicans can feel pretty confident in placing a heavy emphasis here.

Simple is good in politics, because it is effective in politics. The last two presidents to lose reelection were victims of simple themes. In 1992, Bush lost against "It's the economy, stupid." In 1980, Carter lost against "are you better off today than you were four years ago." Both themes embodied big ideas and feelings in a few words. 

Short, simple, powerful. In America, incumbent presidents don't generally lose. Before Carter, the last elected president to lose reelection was Hoover in 1932. For an incumbent to lose, it takes a lot to go wrong for the president and a lot to go right for the challenger -- starting with the challenger's ability to focus Americans' attention. High gas prices already have America's attention.

Obama has had a bad economy since he took office. America largely has given him a pass on it, blaming it on Bush. But Americans are not a patient people when it comes to anything… especially the economy. 

High gas prices fit the bill of an effective challenger's attack in any election but especially in this one. First, they could serve to conduct to Obama the general negativity about the economy, from which he has been insulated. 

More importantly, they threaten like no other issue the populist narrative that Obama's campaign so clearly wants for reelection. High gas prices hit everyone, but they hit hardest those least able to afford them. It is hard to convince the "little guy" that you are fighting for him, when he is fighting just to pay for gas. 

Many of the things the Administration will trumpet in this election, like health care or financial regulatory reform, will not materialize for some time in average voters' lives. High gas prices appear instantly and constantly. 

It is said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. The same applies to a last one too. High gas prices do not make for the impression the Administration wants to leave with voters this summer, just when they making up their minds for president. The Obama Administration is right to be worried about an increasing pain in the gas.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.