You could sense the excitement. The political opportunity was enormous. Gasoline prices were rising, and quickly. So was public anger, which quite naturally would be directed against those who held political power. This would be advantageous to the opposition, even if they knew the price of gasoline was mostly outside government’s power to control. With the right persuasive techniques they could blame $2-a-gallon-gasoline on President George W. Bush, who was after all a genuine Texas oilman.
And so in 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and his film crews headed out to the gas stations of America to imply that all oilmen, and their spiritual leader President Bush, should be boiled in their own product. “When gas hits $2 a gallon, we just don’t pay for it at the pump, we pay for it in our towns and our schools and our grocery stores,” Kerry said on the stump.
Well, yes. Kerry’s strategy may have worked, but not to the desired degree. Political strategists have memories, and it was not so long ago that gasoline prices were rising, rising beyond the unheard of plateau of $1 per gallon, which without a doubt helped make the last days of the Carter administration the last days of the Carter administration. Gasoline prices traditionally tend to spike in the spring with rise in demand, which dovetails nicely with the kickoff of the political season. With any luck public anxiety should peak by mid-July. The polls all show it. People who pump dollars into their tanks can get angry, and when they get angry they want somebody to blame. It all replayed in 2008 when we were gasping at the thought of $4 per gallon. Congress ran for their strategic reserves and launched the traditional search for bogeymen, conspirators and price gougers while ignoring that much of federal policy did not help the situation.
Now is the spring of our discontent. Gasoline is rising back up to $4 with fortuitous political timing and predictable reactions. Politicians watch polls. The polls show you are angry. A Fox News poll this week shows 12 percent of the public are “happy” about the price of gasoline, because it will promote alternate energy sources, and 31 percent of us suspect President Obama is happy, too. Meanwhile, 73 percent are seething.
No wonder the president took his Don’t Blame Me Tour to the oilfields this week. “When prices go up, it hurts everybody … High gas prices are like a tax straight out of your paycheck,” said the president last month, revealing newfound empathy. Republicans of course are trying to lay the blame for insufficient domestic oil production on a president who has only been around three years.
Back at the world oil markets, the supply of crude continues to be poorly matched with rising world demand, leading to inevitable reactions, one of which is a rising price. Add the pent-up desires of the developing world with cyclical insanity in the Middle East and you get a price spike. The price of crude accounts for about 68 percent of the price of gasoline at the pump, say economists. With the world oil market one giant tank, any little dribbles American political policy might add won’t have much effect in the short term. Obama, for all his missteps, slathering subsidies, failed green energy initiatives and antipathy toward internal combustion, is off the hook. So too is George W. Bush, for that matter.
Meanwhile, Americans react to economic signals. High oil prices spur the desire to find more of it, which prompts innovation, which is increasing the domestic oil supply. Consumers, not being stupid, find ways to use less. They drive less and buy cars that use less. Eventually this might have an impact on the price. Whatever, politicians won’t have much to do with it.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.