The morning after the second US presidential debate, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment is getting the lion’s share of online attention. But what is getting less attention is his attempt to use high gasoline prices to attack his Democratic opponent, President Barack Obama.
And there is a very good reason for that: voters care deeply about gasoline prices, but they are truly confused whether the president can do anything about them.
In a poll released Tuesday by the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found that only 32% of voters believed the president had the power to manage gasoline prices. And only 9% believed the president is the “most responsible” for the price at the pump — in contrast, the largest percentage, 36%, blamed oil and gas companies.
However, and this is a big however in the runup to the November 6 election, a full 63% of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promised to make gasoline cheaper. So, essentially, voters are acknowledging that the president has little power to affect gasoline prices, but they may hold him accountable anyway.
“What we see is a disconnect between reality and what people would like reality to be,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll.
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During the town hall-style debate between the two candidates Tuesday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the issue proved to be on the minds of voters when audience member Phillip Tricolla asked Obama if — as Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said — it is not the role of the Department of Energy to help lower gasoline prices.
While Obama avoided a direct answer, he did say his administration has focused on reducing oil imports and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency, which he said will mean individuals spend less on gasoline overall.
“We’ve also got to continue to figure out how we have efficient energy, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to lower demand, and that’s what’s going to keep gas prices lower,” Obama said.
During the debate former Massachusetts Governor Romney went on the attack, charging that gasoline prices have doubled since Obama took office. While the charge is accurate, it ignores that when Obama took office gasoline prices were at their lowest point in almost five years, having plunged as an economic crisis gripped the US. A look at a chart of gasoline prices since 2000 shows a steep rise during the administration of former President George W. Bush, where the average weekly price topped out at about $4.11 per gallon in July 2008, before dropping to a $1.66 at the end of December 2008 as the US economy faced the worst conditions since the Great Depression.
Obama argued that point in the debate, attempting to turn the issue into an attack on Romney.
“So, it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess,” Obama said.
Romney, however, blamed gasoline prices on the Obama administration’s failure to permit enough oil and gas production on public lands in the US, and said he would increase that development.
“If we do that, if we do what I’m planning on doing, which is getting us energy independent, North America energy independence within eight years, you’re going to see manufacturing jobs come back,” Romney said. “Because our energy is low cost, they are already beginning to come back because of our abundant energy. I’ll get America and North America energy independent. I’ll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses.”
What Obama didn’t say was an argument he has made in the past — that the price of crude oil that is refined into gasoline is set in a global market — and that simply increasing US supply in the face of increasing global demand by China and others will likely do little to significantly cut the price at the pump in Iowa, or California, or anywhere else in this country.