Obama Gains as Falling Gas Prices Blunt Republican Attack

Declining gasoline prices have blunted what only a month ago was one of the leading Republican lines of attack against President Barack Obama.

After an almost uninterrupted rise since mid-January, average national retail gasoline prices have fallen 17 cents since April 4, according to the American Automobile Association. The $3.76 per gallon national average yesterday was 20 cents lower than the same day a year ago.

A plunge in crude oil markets and gasoline futures yesterday suggest further easing ahead for prices at the pump.

The trend toward lower fuel prices is now “a small positive” for Obama’s re-election prospects, though likely to be overshadowed by broader economic concerns such as job and income growth, said Christopher Wlezien, a political science professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and co-author with Robert Erikson of the forthcoming book “The Timeline of Presidential Elections.”

The greatest political impact will probably be the “absence of bad news” for Obama in an area that his political adversaries have sought to make a focal point of the campaign, said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in a March 18 “Fox News Sunday” interview there is “no question” Obama was to blame for rising gasoline prices. The Republican called for the firing of the “gas-hike trio,” the secretaries of the Energy and Interior departments and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

TV Campaign

Americans for Prosperity, an organization backed by oil interests, two weeks ago began airing its third television commercial since November, a $6.1 million campaign attacking Obama’s green-energy policies.

In April, 16,991 negative ads aired in various parts of the country and 13,748 of them -- or 81 percent -- focused on energy, according to data provided by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

As gasoline prices were nearing their peak for the year, Obama mounted a two-day, four-state tour March 21-22 to defend his energy policies. He included a stop at an oil-storage hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, the starting point for the southern leg of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline.

Keystone Pipeline

Obama rejected Keystone, which would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, in January because he said a congressional deadline didn’t allow enough time to review the potential risks to an aquifer in Nebraska, a step Republicans including Romney say has contributed to higher fuel prices.

Obama invited TransCanada Corp. to reapply for a permit for a new pathway, and the Calgary-based company did so last week.

As gasoline prices have receded, so has their immediacy as a concern among voters.

In a monthly Gallup Poll on the most important problems facing the country, the portion of responses mentioning gasoline prices declined to 3 percent in questioning May 3-6 from 8 percent in a poll taken April 9-12. Some participants gave multiple answers.

Despite the attacks on Obama’s energy policies, most voters didn’t primarily blame the White House for the run-up in gasoline prices and therefore probably won’t credit Obama for the decline, said Dan Schnur, a campaign adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s first bid for the White House in 2000.

Voters Blame Mideast

Sixty-six percent of Americans primarily blamed oil companies and Middle East nations taking advantage of tensions with Iran for the higher prices, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11. Only 23 percent said the White House was more at fault.

Even so, the incumbent president politically benefits or suffers as gasoline prices influence the public’s sense of economic well-being, said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.

“Any time there’s good news and there are fewer pocketbook problems, it’s good for the incumbent,” Rothenberg said. “The White House has to be relieved.”

Gasoline prices can have a “visceral impact” on consumers’ psyches, because they are prominently displayed on signs across the country and because of the role they play in family budgets, said Schnur, now director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

While gasoline accounted for 4.1 percent of consumer spending in March, fuel prices have a disproportionate impact on middle- and lower-income families.

In 2010, when prices at the pump averaged $2.84 during the year, gasoline purchases consumed 4.8 percent of the budget for middle-income households and 6 percent for lower-middle-income households, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. Among the bottom fifth, gasoline costs were more than 10 percent of income.

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