In recent days, President Obama's popularity has been plunging, with approval ratings threatening to dive below 40 percent. At a time when his White House handlers were finally starting to see light at the end of a 38-month tunnel of discontent, their flash of hope may be a proverbial oncoming train. Most pundits blame the price of gasoline for the turn in the president's electoral fortunes. As the White House spinmeisters try to hornswoggle voters into thinking the president can do little to impact the price of gas, Americans are not buying it. This week, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed two-thirds of Americans blame Barrack Obama directly for the latest price surge. And why shouldn't they?
Notwithstanding the Obama campaign's claim that he is doing everything he can to stabilize gas prices and decrease America's dependence on foreign oil, the past three years have left voters nonplussed. The president's feckless energy record includes his efforts to hobble offshore exploration in the wake of the BP spill, his invidious lobbying to stop the Keystone oil pipeline, his recent moves to impose an onerous federal tax on oil companies and his utterly hopeless foreign policy mismanagement of Iran. Each of these missteps has driven speculators into the petrol market, further raising prices at the pump. But to the White House, the record high gas prices are not the president's fault, and in any event are due to deflate soon, or so they hope.
Since the Watergate era, one of the most reliable ways to predict a presidential election has been the price of gasoline at the pump. In January 1977, when the first post-Watergate president, Jimmy Carter, was inaugurated, the average price at the pump was $2.43, in today's dollars. The actual price was 63 cents per gallon, but the erosion of our non-gold-backed dollar is a subject for a later column.
Advertisement - story continues below
By the time Carter was turned out of office in November 1980, the price had rocketed up 37 percent to $3.33. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated the month that average pump prices hit $3.39, but by his re-election, they had fallen 34 percent to $2.53. Republicans kept control of the White House in the next presidential election, with the average per-gallon price falling another 38 percent to an average of $1.72 in November 1988.
At George H.W. Bush's inauguration, January 1989, the average pump price had fallen further, to $1.64, but President Bush's re-election was doomed when Americans read his lips about taxes and were paying 9 percent more at the pump by the time Election Day 1992 rolled around. His successor, Bill Clinton, would be re-elected notwithstanding an increase in gas prices, but it was so slight – 7 cents a gallon on average – as to be almost unnoticeable. However, by the time Clinton's heir, Al Gore, entered the booth to vote for himself in 2000, prices had increased 12 percent more, to $1.99. George W. Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, and average pump prices were $1.88. As the exception to prove the rule, Bush saw gas prices climb 25 percent to an average of $2.36, but was still re-elected. Of course, America was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, greatly buoying his re-election prospects.
When President Obama was inaugurated, gas prices were an average of $1.92 per gallon. Today, they are $3.80, an increase of 98 percent. Not even the rosiest prognosticator predicts prices less than $2.89 by Election Day, and even were they to fall so low, it would still mean an unprecedented 50 percent increase in pump price since Inauguration Day. No president of the modern era has been re-elected with price increases over 30 percent, and there is no reason to expect Obama will be the first, notwithstanding the protestations of his supporters. Indeed, $2.89-a-gallon gas is less likely than $4 gas, or, if Ahmadinejad continues to rattle his saber, $5-a-gallon or more.
The reason gas prices so directly and dramatically impact our politics is that the increase in pump price is inescapable. Unlike the employment figures, the balance of trade, or even inflation, all Americans experience higher gas prices instantly and dramatically. When it costs more to take that weekend drive, or even to get to work, our citizenry grumbles. Americans can't even drive down the street without those ubiquitous gas station price signs protruding into every intersection.
Advertisement - story continues below
In fact, as prices soar, Obama flirts with Gotterdammerung. A Gallup survey this week reveals that a majority of Americans will make significant changes in their lifestyles and spending habits once gas reaches $5 a gallon. If such a plateau were reached during the normally high-priced summer months, even White House spin will not stop the cratering of the U.S. economy and the collapse of Obama's re-election effort.
Some in the media – including one of the most prominent conservative pundits – have declared the race for the White House over, advising that Republicans should focus their energy on the Congress. While their dystopian predictions may be predicated on a variety of metrics, they are ignoring one of the most important and accurate of all political gauges – the gas gauge.