Republicans have seized on rising gas prices as a political weapon against President Obama. The White House, sensing peril in the attacks as the election gets closer, has mounted a plan to fight back. And rather than simply playing defense, officials believe they can win the messaging war, tough as that may seem, by defending Obama’s record and exploiting weaknesses in the GOP energy platform.
“If drilling were the answer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because under the president production is up,” a White House official told TPM. “Our oil imports are down, and even Republicans have conceded we’re in a domestic energy boom.”
The GOP messaging plan has been to paint Obama on the wrong side of energy independence. From speeches to Capitol stakeouts to op-eds, top Republicans have been hammering this notion on a daily basis over the last few weeks, blaming the president for rising gas prices and citing his rejection of the Keystone pipeline and various other House GOP deregulation bills as evidence that he opposes domestic energy production.
House Republicans and Obama have spent their last two weekly addresses duking it out. The GOP needled Obama for rising gas prices in its Saturday address, with Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) declaring that prices have “on average doubled” under his watch in part because the president has “consistently blocked American energy production, most recently by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.” On Sunday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) advanced the message, calling Obama “hostile to fossil fuels” and saying his policies regarding oil drilling are “not matching his rhetoric.”
Blaming a president for rising gas prices makes little sense in reality, but the White House has for months been conscious that the issue could damage Obama politically, with prices set to continue rising over the summer and put the squeeze on American families. And so Obama has hit the stump to push back.
“Anybody who tells you that we can just drill our way out of this problem does not know what they’re talking about, or they’re not telling you the truth,” Obama said last Thursday in New Hampshire. He brought along a chart illustrating that net oil imports as a share of domestic consumption have declined in each year of his three years in office. Production has also risen during his presidency. Bringing this message home is one key to the president’s strategy.
GOP attacks thread a fine needle. Conscious that oil and natural gas production are soaring, Republicans can’t claim Obama’s been stepping on the industry; they’re saying, essentially, that the nation is enjoying an “energy boom” that could be stronger. In much the same way as Democrats’ “the economy is bad but could have been worse” message fell flat in 2010, the White House sees the GOP’s “energy production is booming but could be better” as equally anemic.
Beyond that, the White House intends to energize progressives by highlighting Obama’s support for ending tax breaks for highly profitable oil companies, a policy that Republicans have either danced around or rejected.
“Americans know there’s no silver bullet to bring gas prices down overnight, but they also know the ultimate answer is a long term energy policy focused on new clean energy technologies and reducing our dependence on oil so that our economy isn’t subject to the whims of the global oil market,” the White House official said. “They also know it’s absurd to ask Americans, on top of the very high prices they are already paying, to shell over another $4 billion a year to these companies while they are already making record profits — and that’s one thing Congress can fix right now.”
There are some perils in this overall strategy. Just a few years after the tide was turning against fossil fuels and toward clean energy — in 2008 even top Republicans were eager to look supportive of solar and wind power — Obama finds himself having to defend his support for oil production. He has adopted the “all of the above” energy rhetoric that Republicans have used for years. That doesn’t go over well with liberals who are increasingly concerned about the environment and want to reduce oil and coal consumption. But the administration is painfully aware that limiting carbon emissions in a weak economy is a political dead-end.
In a sense, Republicans have won on the substance by suppressing that key element of the Democrats’ platform. But it remains to be seen whether they can chip away at Obama’s approval ratings by tying him to rising gas prices — Dems had some success blaming President Bush when the roles were reversed in 2008. Obama’s advisers understand the political potency of that line of attack, and are determined not to take it lightly.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.