Will falling gas prices help Obama?

Story highlights

  • Gas prices have dropped 23 cents per gallon since peaking in April
  • It's unclear whether the drop will undermine GOP attacks against Obama's energy policy
  • Industry experts say politicians deserve little credit or blame for short-term price changes

There's good news for drivers hitting the road this Memorial Day weekend: Gas prices are falling.

Regular unleaded dropped to a national average of $3.71 per gallon this week, 23 cents below an April high of $3.94, according to the federal government.

But will less pain at the pump undercut GOP attacks against President Obama? The answer is unclear.

Earlier this year, there was rampant speculation that national gas prices could top $5 or even $6 per gallon. Republicans seized on the issue, sensing new political vulnerability for the president.

"American families and small businesses are continuing to struggle, and one of their big struggles these days is the rising price of gas," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in February. "If the president's serious about working with (Republicans) to expand energy production in America and to deal with the rising oil prices, it's time for him to lay his cards on the table."

In March, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called on Obama to fire the heads of the Energy Department, the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, blaming them for earlier price spikes.

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Republicans also bitterly criticized Obama's decision last winter to temporarily block an extension of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would stretch from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. GOP leaders call it a blown opportunity to create jobs and cut prices.

Now, gas prices are trending down, but Republicans aren't yielding on the issue. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, spent Friday touring an offshore oil drilling platform in the Gulf, a not-too-subtle way of criticizing the administration's energy development policy. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding two hearings next week to keep up the drumbeat.

One of the hearings, according to a committee news release, will "examine administration policies and regulations that hinder the production and use of oil, natural gas, and coal as energy sources."

CNN on Friday asked Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, whether declining gas prices are blunting the GOP's political message.

"We haven't stopped talking about it, because the need to solve the problem is still there," Stewart said. "This administration is hostile to domestic energy production. ... I don't think you'll find anyone out there who thinks that, even at $3.70 a gallon on average, that it's no longer something to work on."

Top Democrats on Capitol Hill were skeptical of the GOP's ability to gain traction on the issue.

"On gas prices, I would say ... that yes, (the GOP's) attempts to capitalize on gas prices have fizzled," said a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be identified. "But even before prices went down, I think the Republicans' attempts to exploit the issue was coming off as pure politics and thus not gaining much traction anyway."

A CNN/ORC International survey from late March, when gas prices were still rising, showed serious public concern over the issue. Roughly one in five Americans called pump pain the most important issue facing the country; seven in 10 said higher gas prices had caused hardship for them.

There were indications, however, that political fallout from rising gas prices was limited. The poll showed that most Americans blamed oil companies for the price increases, not the Obama administration. Congressional Republicans received almost as much blame as the White House, and foreign oil-producing countries got more blame than politicians of either party.

"Republicans seemed to think they had a big weapon to use against Obama. Now, it's not so clear that they will," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

"Americans don't worry about gas prices as much as they worry about gas shortages. The energy crises of the 1970s that arguably had some effect on elections were really due to long lines and rationing. If those return for any reason, Obama would face a big problem. But if prices are high and gasoline is still easy to acquire, the public would probably not view that as a crisis."

Oil industry experts argue that politicians, including the president, have a very limited ability to affect short term prices one way or the other.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Maryland-based Oil Price Information Service, said the recent price drop is due primarily to investors misreading the global oil market earlier this year, less recent focus on the nuclear standoff with Iran and Europe's economic woes.

Policy changes such as increased domestic drilling wouldn't affect prices "one way or the other" right now, Kloza said. Changes to automobile mileage standards or Gulf drilling permits could affect prices in about five to 10 years, he estimated.

"Nobody can take credit (for the short-term changes), and nobody can take blame," he said.

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