Obama's Coming Gas Price War with the GOP

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Don't take its outraged rhetoric at face value: the GOP loves it when gas prices begin to climb. Why? Because they've got a battle-tested, generally popular, and bite-sized message to deploy whenever they do. It might not exactly be 'drill, baby, drill', but it'll be the equivalent: Expand domestic drilling. Drill here, drill now. You get the picture.

Republican strategists love this primarily because it works. It's a simple notion, and it insinuates straightforward-seeming logic: prices are rising, presumably because oil is getting scarce, and if we drilled for more oil, it'd no longer be scarce! So prices would go down—if only we drilled. But those tree-hugging Democrats won't let us, so you suffer.

And the public gobbles it up. The logic is beyond faulty, but they gobble it up.

Of course, the price of gasoline is indeed largely pegged to the price of oil. And oil is a globally-traded commodity whose price spikes and falls according to the whims of worldwide market forces. For instance, the tension in Iran has spooked financial speculators, causing the most recent jump in oil prices. And booming global demand—and shrinking global supply—continually causes an uptick in prices, too. Meanwhile, Obama has been anything but unfriendly to oil drilling. After all, he just opened up 1.5 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. You know, that big swath of ocean that was just soaked in oil two years ago. He's been more ambitious about expanding drilling operations than Bush has, in fact.

But all that's inconsequential. Gas prices are going up, and Obama is president. So, as far as the GOP is concerned, it's his fault. Hence Speaker of the House John Boehner's strategy to hit him for high gas prices, as reported by the New York Times:

In a closed-door meeting last week, Speaker John A. Boehner instructed fellow Republicans to embrace the gas-pump anger they find among their constituents when they return to their districts for the Presidents’ Day recess.

“This debate is a debate we want to have,” Mr. Boehner told his conference on Wednesday, according to a Republican aide who was present. “It was reported this week that we’ll soon see $4-a-gallon gas prices. Maybe higher. Certainly, this summer will see the highest gas prices in years. Your constituents saw those reports, and they’ll be talking about it.”

Now, there's relatively little proof that high gas prices impact a presidential election one way or the other, but the coming war of words does have an impact on policy: As we've seen, it moves Obama to the right on issues like drilling and fossil fuels production. To try to stem off the criticism, he embraces more domestic drilling, and will be more eager to prove that his policies aren't sending prices at the pump through the roof—even if his gestures are in reality meaningless.

Expanding drilling operations domestically will do next to nothing to lower gas prices in the short-term—after all, it takes years to explore, develop, and transport new oil resources—and will do very little in the long run. The newly opened expanses would simply be a drop in the bucket in the context of the global oil marketplace, and not voluminous to make much impact.

So it will, in essence, be a war of words between Obama and his GOP challengers over an issue that actual policy has very little immediate bearing on—but it has already had real-world impacts. Just look at the new oil rigs being ready for the Gulf for proof. Obama and the Democrats are going to have to find a resonant, unified message about the ills of relying of fossil fuels if they ever hope to stop getting pushed around by the GOP's powerful sloganeering.

Tags: Barack Obama | Congress | Oil