“Who can do anything about gas prices, anyway?”: So was the Democrats’ response to yesterday’s The New York Times poll finding a dive between February and today in President Obama’s approval rating. The fall was all the fault of the price at the pump, they and the Times said. But the Times is famous for skewed surveys that conveniently confirm its political positions. If its interviewers recorded a presidential plunge, what must the true numbers be and what must be the true cause?
And yes, at the moment, there is little the president can do about gas prices. In the playbook of politics, re-election year is the year of consequences. It is the year an incumbent has to live with the results of his big actions, and try to distract public attention if those actions are failing. If he started his term, as this president did, with a big bet on a Keynesian stimulus and it didn’t work, it is too late to go supply-side. And of course, when it comes to energy, how much new oil can any presidential decision today actually cause to come to market between now and November?
There were, of course, many things the president could have done early in his term, and even in the past year, to pull today’s gas prices down.
He could have opened drilling in federal lands. It turns out that little, if any, of the new oil production that has poured from so many unexpected quarters in the continental U.S. has been on federal lands, where, according to press reports, pumping has declined more than ten percent since the president took office.
Or the president could have responded differently to the BP oil spill and not shutdown so much Gulf of Mexico production.
Or he could have opened new areas of production in Alaska, not to mention approved the Keystone pipeline. A White House advisor told Politico several weeks ago that, given the politics of small unions versus big environmental groups, denying the Keystone permit had been a political “no-brainer,” which may be right, but only if you give the term a different connotation.
Or he could have supported the opposition in Iran in the first year of his presidency. The recent gas price hikes were undoubtedly a result of global skittishness about Iran shutting the Straits of Hormuz, the most sensitive oil chokepoint in the world. How different would things be today – and how much lower gas prices – if a friendly or at least neutral regime ruled over modern Persia? Too late for that now.
And don’t tell me how effective economic sanctions have been. Such talk only reminds people that sanctions have failed to slow Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon — and why shouldn’t sanctions fail, when Russia and China disdain them.
But, here is a question: Might there be reasons other than rising gas prices for the president’s popularity plopping like a plane hitting an airpocket between early February and now?
Some have said reason x is a backlash against the White House’s intransigence on Obamacare mandating contraceptive coverage with no religious exception. Democrats told everyone who would listen that the issue was a winner with women, insuring the president a lock on their support early in the campaign season. Yet women turned away from the president more than almost any other group in the past month, per The Times’ poll. Is it possible women care about religious liberty, too?
But here is my guess at the added unknown factor: The president has begun seriously campaigning.
I know, everyone says that Mr. Obama is such a compelling figure on the stump. I don’t buy it. Sure, people like him. Beautiful family. Nice man. Obviously intelligent. As a person, what’s not to like?
But when that very likeable person starts to talk about all he has done as president, he reminds people how much of what he has done — and plans to do — they feel is misguided.
I could go through it all – the spending, the deficits, the attempts at tax boosts, the regulations, the shock and awe expansion of federal government power over our lives, including the trampling of religious liberty; and, yes, the Keystone pipeline; the bungling of Middle Eastern policy; the suspicion that, if the president does indeed have Israel’s back, he will be tempted to stick a knife into it. I could go on, but we all know the list.
My point is, when the president takes to the stump, he and his political advisors believe they are deploying an electoral weapon of unparalleled power – and they are right, except the weapon is at least as dangerous to them as to their opposition.
Here is the paradox without parallel in modern American political history: Again and again, on a range of issues starting with health care in the first year of his term, the more Mr. Obama has spoken for a policy, the less popular that policy has become.
This could be the x factor in the politics of 2012.