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Democratic Overconfidence, Meet The Long Commute

At several points in recent weeks, as President Obama’s approval ratings inched steadily upward and the nice big job-creation numbers started rolling out, I found myself in the position of raining on the liberals’ parade. Obama’s prospects were brightening, but one thing could still seriously challenge that, I’d tell those celebrating his rise: gas prices. And as obvious as that observation might sound, I noticed that it was often shrugged off. Gas prices? Sure, they’re going up, but really, it’s just...gasoline. What’s the difference going to mean, $20 or $30 more a month? That’s a few trips to the movies.

Well, apparently it matters a bit more than that to a lot of people. The new Washington Post-ABC poll shows Obama’s approval rating slipping backward and concludes:

Gas prices are a main culprit: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation at the pump, where rising prices have already hit hard. Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue, his lowest rating in the poll. Most Americans say higher prices are already taking a toll on family finances, and nearly half say they think that prices will continue to rise, and stay high.
Friday’s employment report showed a gain of 227,000 jobs in the past month, continuing an upward trend and offering the White House something positive to point to. Still, the survey — conducted Wednesday through Saturday — finds 59 percent of Americans giving Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month. Now, 50 percent give him intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post-ABC News poll, and a jump of nine percentage points.
The negative movement has also stalled what had been a gradual increase since the fall in the president’s overall approval rating. In the new poll, 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 50 percent disapprove. That’s a mirror image of his 50 to 46 positive split in early February. The downshift is particularly notable among independents — 57 percent of whom now disapprove — and among white people without college degrees, with disapproval among this group now topping approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.
These groups are also the ones whose shifting support has re-shuffled prospective general-election matchups. Among registered voters, Obama is now on par with Romney (47 percent for the president, 49 percent for Romney) and Santorum (49 to 46 percent). Previously, Obama held significant advantages over both.

At the risk of going all Charles Murray here, I’m going to venture a sweeping sociological generalization and say that discussions of gas prices and their political impact bring to the fore like almost nothing else the disconnect between Acela America and pretty much everywhere else. The right-thinking urban liberals who can’t fathom that gas prices will matter all that much in the 2012 election say that because...they don’t drive much! They are blessed to live in places like New York, Washington and Boston where you take the subway or bus, walk, ride your bike (maybe even ride a shared bike!) and at most drive short hops here and there, certainly less than the average car commute of 16 miles each way. Where you brag about not really using your car at all during the week; where the experience of standing by the pump is a very occasional one, where the sight of the digital dollar figure ticking ever upward is startling but also potentially gratifying in a schadenfreude sort of way: damn that costs a lot, but good thing I’m not using much of it!

Well, others still are. Gasoline consumption has dropped in recent years as a result of fewer people working and higher fuel efficiency, but it’s still awfully high in the places where people can least afford the rising cost. National household consumption is about 1100 gallons per year, but it’s up around 1500 gallons in rural ares. For someone consuming at that level, the difference between $3 and $4 gas is...$1500 (fancy math.) This, I should say, is one of the benefits of getting out of the Beltway and onto the campaign trail in election years: being reminded of distances. In Iowa for the caucuses, I stopped by my grandmother’s hometown of Red Oak, a lovely but fading small town in the southwestern corner of the state. I found the house she grew up in, a large, handsome Victorian a few blocks from the center of town and introduced myself to the owner, a fortyish man who’d bought it for well under $100,000. He is an HVAC technician but there isn’t much work to be had in Red Oak. So every day he drives to Omaha—more than 50 miles each way. Why doesn’t he move to Omaha? Well, because he’s from Red Oak, he wants his children to grow up there and he doesn’t want to be one more native leaving the town to its decline. You can certainly argue that many people who are hit hard by expensive fuel could avoid the pain by choosing otherwise—a sedan instead of an SUV; giving up the fifth bedroom in exchange for living closer in. But one could also argue that we urban types have not exactly done everything we could to encourage the decisions we approve of—for one thing, as Matt Yglesias’ new book argues, there’d be more people living less auto-dependent lives if NIMBY zoning did not have such a death grip on our most desirable cities, where close-in, walkable living is becoming a Parisian-style luxury. Bottom line: gas prices matter, and that should worry even those liberals who are happily ensconced in their iPhone on the Orange Line to Capitol Hill or the Q to Brooklyn.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis