The Obama oil choke, explained

President Obama seems genuinely surprised that grumpy American voters are holding him personally responsible for the pain they feel at the pump.  He’s been scrambling to come up with a defensive strategy to get him through the next election, having apparently over-estimated the ability of the media to protect him.

Rising gas prices are tough to finesse.  People don’t like buying gas – they do it because they must.  There’s no way to repackage the product, to make it seem “fun” or “exciting,” and ease the pain of extra dollars being siphoned from their wallets.  Voters also understand that gas prices influence the cost of everything else, so they interpret the high cost of gasoline, not unreasonably, as a leading indicator of economic malfunction.

The Administration strategy has devolved into bleating that gas prices are completely outside of Obama’s control.  Since his party, and Obama himself, were very vocal in insisting that previous Republican presidents were heavily responsible for prices at the pump, this amounts to the assertion that Obama is the first president in history who had nothing to do with oil prices.

That’s a tough pill for the public to swallow.  Voter revulsion to presidential ineffectiveness is a bi-partisan phenomenon.  It’s how Bill Clinton creamed the first George Bush, who at one point was resting atop a cushion of 80 to 90 percent approval ratings.  No one really wants to hear a President make endless excuses about how nothing can be done, especially when his prospective opponents in the next election are offering energetic, common-sense proposals for increased oil production.

Voters also can’t help but notice that Obama personally lobbied, hard, to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.  In fact, he’s killed it repeatedly, and he will soon be given another chance to strangle it in the Senate.  Surveying the landscape at National Review, Mario Loyola of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment totals up the damage from Obama’s “policy of choking off oil production under federal leases” and concludes:

Obama will soon be personally responsible for preventing some 2 million barrels per day of possible North American crude oil production from reaching the American economy. The U.S. currently produces only about 6 million barrels of domestic crude oil, so that would be more than a 30 percent increase in domestic production.  

The president likes to say that America is producing more oil than ever before, but that’s due entirely to shale oil (e.g., fracking) and oil sands. The boom in production from private sources is currently shielding the administration from the political consequences of taking such a huge amount of oil off the market.  

Which means things could be worse, and if Obama gets another four years in the White House, they almost certainly will be. 

Obama apologists have been pushing two conflicting ideas: increased American oil production would instantly vanish into the world market, without measurable effect, while the mere possibility of reduced Iranian production is driving up prices at American pumps.  It would be a challenge for even the Mad Hatter to hold two such contradictory ideas in his head at the same time.  Loyola demolishes this illogical argument with breathtaking ease:

Two million barrels per day of oil production would affect not just the price of gasoline in North America, but also the economics of world oil production: The president is preventing the U.S. from increasing oil production by an amount nearly equivalent to Iran’s total oil exports. He insists that gasoline prices are rising because of “fears” about a disruption in Iranian supply, but he wants you to believe that gasoline prices would be unaffected by a 30 percent increase in domestic U.S. oil production in the next two years.

If you’re gullible enough to believe that, consider this: The recession drove world oil demand from a peak of 86 million barrels per day in 2007 to a low of 85 million barrels per day in 2009. In the same period, the price of gasoline fell by half. We are once again entering a period of scarcity, where slight fluctuations in demand or supply will have a disproportionate impact on gas prices — but this time the scarcity is largely the product of Obama’s policies.  

It is certainly true that no President can snap his fingers and change prices at the pump, beyond ill-advised short-term quick fixes like releasing oil from the strategic reserves.  There is, however, nothing complicated about the linkage between Obama’s long-term policies and soaring gas prices.