By Jeff Mason ,Reuters
WASHINGTON — As Republican presidential candidates toss barbs at U.S. Barack Obama over expensive gasoline, the U.S. president and his team are going on the offensive with a strategy to divert blame and prepare voters for higher costs.
In subtle and not so subtle ways, Obama, a Democrat, is raising the issue of high prices to promote his own policy priorities and blunt criticism from the men vying to unseat him in the Nov. 6 election.
His strategy is both politically and policy-oriented. The president wants to advance his plans to increase renewable energy sources and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But he also needs to win the war of words to gain an upper hand over Republicans in Western battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where people drive a lot and feel the sting of rising oil prices acutely. Republicans see many weaknesses to exploit. They blame Obama for not doing enough to increase domestic production of fossil fuels and cite his decision to block a new oil pipeline from Canada as evidence that he is beholden to environmentalists.
Rising gasoline costs have brought the issue to the forefront of the presidential campaign. So Obama has started to pepper his speeches with references to prices at the pump. On Tuesday he cited the extension of the payroll tax cut as a welcome buffer for workers coping with the cost of gas. On Wednesday he proposed — not for the first time — getting rid of tax loopholes that benefit oil and gas companies. On Thursday he went a step further, using a speech in Florida to outline his own accomplishments in the energy arena and lambasting rival politicians for promising easy solutions to bringing prices down. “You know there are no quick fixes to this problem. You know we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices,” he told an audience at the University of Miami, noting instability in the Middle East and rising demand in China were boosting the oil market. “If we’re going to avoid being at the mercy of these world events, we’ve got to have a sustained, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy. Yes, oil and gas, but also wind and solar and nuclear and biofuels,” he said to applause. Average gasoline prices have climbed to their highest February levels on record, hitting US$3.53 per gallon last week, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse data. Gasoline prices have tracked crude oil prices, which have been bolstered by the threat of supply disruptions from the West’s standoff with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. Some analysts say U.S. prices could hit US$4 a gallon or more ahead of the summer when driving demand peaks.