Getting Gas

As gas prices soar and President Obama’s approval ratings plummet, there has been much speculation about the historical relationship between the cost of fuel and Presidential approval ratings. 

Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Obama all suffered at the polls while prices at the pump ticked up (although in Carter’s case, describing the situation as merely “rising gas prices” takes understatement to comical extremes.)  A data-packed article at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball looks closely at the correlation, while Nate Silver points out in the New York Times that the cost of gasoline both influences, and reflects, many other factors that can lead to an unhappy electorate.

Whatever the statistical relationships might be, a lot of people are grumbling about the high price of gasoline, and they seem to have a growing awareness that President Obama’s policies have exacerbated the problem.  (For high-information voters, that’s another comical understatement.)  The media have been going to great lengths to ignore this story for a very long time, but now the public reaction has grown too loud to go unreported. 

Why is the cost of gasoline so important to people?  The average cost of a gallon of gas was $1.83 when Barack Obama took office, while it’s $3.89 today.  That’s an increase of $2.06 per gallon, which means it costs an extra $41.20 to fill a 20-gallon tank.  Most people don’t wait until their tank has run completely dry to stop for gas, so the drivers of small and mid-size cars are probably only paying five or ten dollars more at each weekly fill-up.  (Of course, it’s much worse for the people Obama has been telling to sell their SUVs and cram their families into a hybrid mini-van.)  Why does such a modest increase in expense result in so much pain?

One reason is that getting gas is universal.  It’s a shared experience, a standard feature of American life.  We all feel the pinch from rising gas prices.  We notice that everyone is complaining about them.

Another reason is that gasoline isn’t fun.  Buying gas is a tedious but necessary expense.  There’s no sense of acquisition, no excitement over an interesting new purchase.  Food is a universal expense too, but shopping for food is a much more enjoyable experience.  We have many products to choose from.  Clever packages compete for our attention with wit and energy as we browse the shelves.  We exit the grocery store filled with anticipation for the taste of our purchases.

Gas, on the other hand, is a foul-smelling fluid we pump into our cars because they will stop moving if we don’t.  There is no entertainment or anticipation to be savored at the gas pump.  It’s a drag, and now it’s an expensive drag.

One other thing about gas is that consumption tends to decline sharply, rather than gradually, in response to rising prices.  Most people don’t begin gradually ramping down their fuel consumption as the price per gallon climbs past three dollars.  Instead, they arrive at a moment when the price is just too high, and start canceling entire trips, or otherwise rearranging their lifestyle. 

They don’t begin patronizing increasingly less distant shops and theaters as the price of gas climbs.  Instead, they come away from a bitter experience at the pump thinking they’ll have to make do without day trips and evening drives altogether.  The process of trading SUVs for hybrid vans, which King Obama demanded of the peasants in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, is not smooth and painless.  The freedom of movement is very important to Americans.  They part with it grudgingly. 

Perhaps it owes something to dimming memories of Carter-era panic, but Americans will always see rising gas prices as a leading indicator of diminished control over the national destiny.  They know much of their oil comes from overseas, and they are often told that gas prices are shaped by global events.  Every dime added to pump prices is seen as another bit of the domestic economy slipping away.  Many also harbor suspicions about Big Oil, and view rising gas prices as an example of corporations taking advantage of the little guy.

Whether gas pump predators are domestic or imported, Americans view holding them at bay as part of the President’s job description.  The diminishing beat of a slowing national heart can be heard outside every convenience store.