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What Obama Should and Shouldn’t Do About High Gas Prices

During his press conference on March 6, Barack Obama remarked that there’s “no silver bullet” to stem rising gas prices in the short term—and in the view of most energy experts, he’s right. The problem, though, is that the American people don’t agree. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, made public the day before the president spoke, 55 percent said that the government has a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of control over gas prices. Instead of trying to convince them otherwise, Obama should be doing everything he can to prove that this is high on his priority list.

Here’s what won’t work. As long as gas prices remain elevated, Obama should downplay his standard mantra about conservation, efficiency, and alternative fuels. Right now the people are in no mood to be told that they should buy expensive electric cars and $50 LED lightbulbs. It will just make them receptive to the Republican charge—which Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal pressed in a March 12 Wall Street Journal op-ed—that he’s giving his environmental commitments priority over lower energy costs.

He should also stop reciting statistics about increased oil production and decreased dependency on foreign oil. While they’re absolutely true, they are unlikely to move the public. I’ve been in six presidential campaigns, and I cannot recall an instance in which statistics trumped voters’ direct personal experience.

Finally, Obama should resist advice to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which was created after the 1973 Arab oil embargo to protect the United States against severe supply disruptions. When Al Gore proposed that step in the fall of 2000, he was accused of playing politics with energy security, and the voters reacted adversely. As tensions with Iran rise and the threat of war or an interruption of crude oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz escalates, tapping the reserve for non-emergency purposes would leave the president open to the kinds of charges that hurt Gore’s campaign. Politically seasoned Democrats such as House Minority whip Steny Hoyer have counseled against it, and the president should listen to them.

So what can he do about high gas prices? His best chance to defuse the issue is to dramatize his active engagement and concern. Make sure people know that he cares, and that this is on his agenda. His administration has already taken the first step: Energy Secretary Steven Chu reversed his stance of 2008 that gas prices should rise to “the levels in Europe,” declaring that “I no longer share that view.”

But the president doesn’t have to stop at mere rhetoric. As he indicated in his press conference, he can ask the Department of Energy to find feasible ways of preempting production bottlenecks in refineries—for example, by waiving the shift from winter to summer gasoline blends that contributes to higher prices. In addition, he can direct the Justice Department to crack down on oil market speculation, which many experts believe exaggerates the price impact of relatively modest supply/demand imbalances.

Other political moves will be tougher for Obama to make, but make even more of a difference in the public eye. For example, he could declare that “my administration is not conducting a war on fossil fuels.” To make that claim credible, he could expedite consideration of the revised Keystone XL pipeline route and approve it sometime this summer. He could make it clear that absent compelling scientific evidence to the contrary, his administration will not prevent the use of hydrofracking, a technique that has spurred the development of natural gas reserves. He could indicate his administration’s interest in pursuing new technologies for using coal cleanly and efficiently. And he can make sure that no new “Tier 3” motor vehicle emission and fuel standards go into effect until the gas price spike subsides and the economic recovery is strong enough to absorb new rules.

These positions may make some environmentalists unhappy, but they will mute the discontent of millions of average families who are struggling to get by in the face of rising prices and stagnant wages. And to the extent that they prevent the gas price surge from going as far it otherwise would, they will help insulate the economic recovery from reduced demand for household expenses other than gas.

To be sure, high gas prices may not spell political death for Obama. Smart analysts such as political statistician Nate Silver and political scientist Alan Abramowitz have uncovered no direct correlation between gas prices and incumbents’ approval ratings. But does Obama really want to bet his presidency on their findings?

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.