03.21.12

Amid Attacks, Obama Tries to Maintain High Ground on Energy

With fuel prices rising, the president launches a three-state tour to try to change the narrative. Daniel Stone reports.

Barack Obama set off on a two-day trip Wednesday to Nevada, New Mexico, and Oklahoma to tour energy companies, visit oilfields, and announce a plan to fast-track approval of portion of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in an attempt to take the high ground on rising gas prices and energy issues, which Republicans have keyed in on as a potential vulnerability for the president.

Even as the unemployment rate has ticked down and the economy has shown signs of recovery, the Obama White House and campaign has assertively tried to defend his energy record as polls show most voters believe that the president’s policies are costing them at the pump.

Since January, the White House has released 217 notices related to energy, barraging reporters with multiple missives each day. The president himself has already made four speeches on America’s energy future this year, hitting on buzzed-about themes like energy independence, renewable power, and domestic fuel prices.

The White House “has seen how central energy is to the political narrative over the last four years and has been determined to occupy the populist ground,” says Paul Bledsoe, a senior energy analyst with Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center. “The question is, are they now in danger of losing the populist narrative?” The jury may still be out on the answer. But the administration isn’t wasting time.

Obama officials have responded to Republican claims that Obama is asleep at the wheel with a simple economics lesson: the president has little control over gas prices. “We are living in a world where there is a global oil market and that price is affected by a number of factors that are not necessarily within the control of policymakers in Washington, and they include unrest in parts of the world, and they include economic growth in parts of the world,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Obama's top pitchman, told reporters in late February.

“[The White House] has seen how central energy is to the political narrative over the last four years and has been determined to occupy the populist ground.”

Obama himself has made the don’t-blame-me argument as well, citing other factors, including global demand and fluctuations in production, that contribute to how speculators set oil costs. (Never mind that during his 2008 campaign, Obama pinned high fuel prices on the Bush administration’s shaky economic policies—a discrepancy the Obama campaign has yet to fully address.)

The president’s argument hasn’t been entirely convincing. Protesters have planned demonstrations for each leg of Obama’s trip. A Tea Party group near Boulder City, Nev., is eager to heckle Obama over his support of renewable energy after the Solyndra debacle. In New Mexico, business leaders will confront the president over a plan by the Department of Interior to protect the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard under the Endangered Species Act, an apparent affront to energy production on the same land. A day before Obama’s arrival in Cushing, Okla., the region’s congressman, Rep. John Sullivan, released a statement slamming Obama for trying to take credit for expediting a portion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, even though Republicans are unconvinced he deserves it. Talking to a local news station, Mike Cantrell with the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance accused Obama of using the Cushing visit as “a stunt” to claim he’s doing something to reduce gas prices.

House Speaker John Boehner’s office has fiercely attacked the White House for being unserious about its “all of the above” approach, a term the White House has recently begun to employ. That phrase was the brainchild of John McCain’s campaign, coined during the 2008 election when conservatives used the bumper-sticker strategy to fill local town halls with chants of “Drill, baby, drill.”

When put on defense, the White House answers unceremoniously with statistics. Domestic oil production, officials argue, is up 11 percent since 2009 (under Bush it dropped 15 percent in eight years). Foreign oil imports have dropped nearly 10 points to 46 percent of all U.S. consumption, a relative low point. And the number of oil rigs looking for oil has in fact increased by almost 300 from last year, despite the 2010 oil spill that temporarily halted all exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico. Gas prices, one aide notes, go up every summer, titillating a Washington press corps eager to assign blame.

On Wednesday morning as Obama boarded Air Force One to head to Nevada, administration staffers released a fact sheet on Obama’s energy wrangling, the latest in the long series of paper pushing to maintain populist support on a difficult issue. “The rate that fuel prices rise might not be the president’s fault,” says an Obama insider speaking under the usual rules of anonymity. “But if people feel they are, this could get away from him pretty quick.”