The Truth About Gas Prices

Bill Scher

One of the critical moments in Barack Obama presidential candidacy happened in May 2008, in the days preceding the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. Gas prices were skyrocketing, en route to an all time record $4.12 per gallon. The presidential candidates were under pressure to propose quick fix solutions.

Both the de facto Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, and Obama’s primary challenger Sen. Hillary Clinton were touting a “gas tax holiday.” But Obama resisted, earning the mockery of the pundit class. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said: “If that’s your best outreach to working-class voters, stay home tomorrow because it’s going to get ugly in North Carolina and Indiana.”

Yet Obama handily won North Carolina, and battled Clinton to a near-draw in Indiana. And he did it with an ad called “Truth,” in which he said:

I’m here to tell you the truth. We could suspend the gas tax for six months, but that’s not going to bring down gas prices longterm. It’s going to save about $25, $30. Or half a tank of gas. That’s typical of how Washington works. There’s a problem, everybody’s upset about gas prices. Let’s find some short-term, quick fix that we can say we did something, even though we’re not really doing anything.

He then said to ultimately solve the problem of gas price spikes we need to “use less oil” which means “long-term” solutions such as “developing alternative fuels” and “raising fuel efficiency standards.”

He talked straight to the voters, and it worked.

Now it’s four years later. President Obama has begin to turn the nation toward a clean energy future, with significant investments in alternative energy through the Recovery Act, and a deal with automakers to dramatically increase fuel efficiency standards.

But the Senate in 2010 — and the Republican House since then — refused to take up comprehensive clean energy legislation that would cap carbon emissions and make renewable fuels widely affordable and accessible. And even if Congress did, these are “long-term” solutions. There are no short-term solutions to prevent gas price spikes.

Conservatives are betting that a President Obama can’t succeed in taking straight about gas prices the way Candidate Obama did. And they’re spreading their usual misinformation about gas prices to scapegoat him.

First, they are exaggerating the price spike itself, saying that under Obama’s presidency, prices have jumped from $1.83 to $3.70 per gallon.

That is technically true, but remember, in the summer of 2008 gas was over $4 a gallon. Prices briefly plummeted below $2 per gallon right before Obama’s inauguration because there was this little cataclysmic global economic meltdown that shattered consumer demand.

If you want to blame Obama for anything, blame him for saving the economy from plunging into a Great Depression, so people still have a reason to buy gas.

More important than exaggerating the jump in prices, conservatives are also trying to argue that higher gas prices are the result of a deliberate effort by President Obama. This is ridiculous, for three reasons.

1. The President doesn’t have the ability to directly affect gas prices even if he wanted to, as the Washington Post recounted today. The current price is high because of “years and decades of exploration, automobile design and ingrained consumer habits combined with political events in places such as Sudan and Libya, anxiety about possible conflict with Iran, and the energy aftershocks of last year’s earthquake in Japan”;

2. Gas prices are higher globally, not just here and therefore have not gone up because of the policy choices of a nation with only 2% of the world’s oil, and finally;

3. Despite conservative assertions, the President never said he wanted higher gas prices. What he called for in 2008 was a “gradual adjustment” so affordable clean energy, energy efficiency and consumer rebates could ensure we wouldn’t suffer any more from gas price spikes.

That’s the kind of policy that would be achieved with a cap on carbon emissions, which the President supports, but isn’t in place because of congressional obstruction. Conservatives argue that it would raise energy prices, and that’s their opinion, but you can’t blame the current price of gas on a policy that isn’t in place.

Of course, all conservatives have to offer is more oil drilling. But as was recounted during the 2008 spike, more oil drilling in our tiny reserves would only lower the price of gas 6 cents a gallon … in twenty years.

You can save more money than that right away by keeping your tires properly inflated.

Candidate Obama trusted the voters to accept the truth, and he was right.

President Obama is doing the same, conducting a series of interviews with local TV stations, and delivering the message that: “I think the American people understand that we don’t have a silver bullet when it comes to gas prices. We’ve been talking about this for 30 years. The only way to stabilize gas prices is to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.” And “when you hear politicians saying that somehow they’ve got some magic formula to start getting $2 a gallon gas, they’re not telling the truth.”

The new public education effort is just beginning, and so far has been overshadowed by the fallout from the mass murder in Afghanistan.

But bet on Obama. He has done this before. And conservative arguments haven’t gotten any more factual since then.

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