I happened to be watching Hillary Clinton promote her gas-tax holiday just prior to Obama's Wright press conference. It was an impressive affair. In addition to pounding away at her concern for people's day-to-day well-being, Clinton managed to frame the issue as much more economically significant than it actually is. Whereas it would only end up saving the average voter $30 or so, Clinton emphasized some $2 billion in savings to the trucking industry, which sounds like a ton. She also had a nice line about how she's the only candidate who supports immediate relief to drivers and is willing to pay for it--a shot at both Obama (who opposes the tax holiday) and John McCain (who supports it, but not the excess profits tax she uses to finance it).
Having said all that, I still think Obama was right to take the opposite position. He's absolutely right on the merits--as Marc Ambinder notes in this post, the proposal probably wouldn't even save as much was the widespread estimate, thanks to the fixed nature of the short-run gas supply. And, politically, this helps him reclaim some of the high ground he lost over the last seven weeks or so, when his campaign devolved into one exasperating flap after another. For someone selling himself as a "different kind of politician," it's helpful to be able to point out, as Obama did in Wilmington today, that:
This is the problem with Washington. We are facing a situation where oil prices could hit $200 a barrel. Oil companies like Shell and BP just reported record profits for the quarter. And we’re arguing over a gimmick that would save you half a tank of gas over the course of the entire summer so that everyone in Washington can pat themselves on the back and say that they did something.
Well let me tell you--this isn’t an idea designed to get you through the summer, it’s designed to get them through an election. The easiest thing in the world for a politician to do is to tell you exactly what you want to hear. But if we want to finally solve the challenges we’re facing right now, we need to tell the American people what they need to hear. We need to tell the truth.
My only complaint is that Obama needs to supplement this with something that addresses people's current economic angst, albeit in a way that doesn't look like pandering. (Easier said than done, I know.) True, Obama did reiterate his middle-class tax cut proposal today, and his plan to abolish taxes for senior citizens making under $50,000. But I think he needs something targeted directly at people squeezed by gas prices--maybe some sort of tax credit for commuters who carpool, which would have the benefit of lowering oil demand (i.e., addressing our long-term energy problems) while providing immediate relief.
I'm not entirely sure how you'd implement that sort of thing, but I'm sure Obama's ultra-competent policy shop could figure out the details.
P.S. Another thought: a tax credit for people who live in small towns and work over 30 miles away. A "preserve small-town small-town America" tax credit. You argue that high gas prices threaten the viability of small-town life for many commuters, and that we have an interest in preserving these communities. Of course, you do risk the pandering problem here...
Update: Krugman agrees that the gas tax holiday is utterly pointless, and lays out the basic economics involved.
Related: "Gas Tax Politics, Ctd." by Noam Scheiber