George W. Bush is the latest President to learn a painful political lesson: Americans get very unhappy when gasoline prices spike, and they take it out on the guy in the White House.
Throughout the Bush Presidency, the pattern has been striking. Whatever else is happening, from temporary triumphs in Iraq to Administration scandals, when prices at the pump jump for more than a month, the President's popularity almost always falls. Indeed, throughout the Bush Presidency, changes in the Energy Dept.'s monthly pump price survey closely parallel the President's disapproval rating, as measured by the Gallup Poll.
As it turns out, a BusinessWeek analysis of historical data finds that this problem has bedeviled Presidents at least since 1973, when the Arab oil embargo created gas lines, a price spiral toward 55 cents per gallon, and an additional headache for President Richard Nixon. Of course, price spikes aren't the sole cause of falling Presidential popularity. The relationship is a correlation, and other factors contribute to public perceptions of a President.
Nixon had to deal with not just gas prices but Watergate. Jimmy Carter faced the Iran hostage crisis and economic stagflation. George H.W. Bush was hurt by a sluggish economy and a backlash against a tax increase. And Bill Clinton was slowed by scandal fatigue. But through it all, the striking relationship between rising gas prices and plunging Presidential popularity stands out.
One other bit of bad news for the current President: History suggests that while rising gas prices are very bad for incumbents, falling gas prices don't necessarily help Presidents improve their job approval ratings.
By Richard S. Dunham, with Howard Gleckman