For months, it looked as though whichever Republican hopeful made it through their never-ending primary could win on the economy alone. But, as Obama hits his stride with positive economic indicators including better-than-expected job growth and a jump in the stock market, Republicans are now scrambling to come up with a new boogieman.
Enter gas prices.
Right now, gas prices are under four dollars a gallon, but analysts claim that they could hit the $4 mark by this summer – it’s already happened in some places like California and even on the East Coast (there are scattered reports of $4/gallon in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area). Others talk of $5/gallon. Republicans are already using the rising costs as an attack on Democrats. “They want higher energy prices. They want to push their radical agenda on the public,” Rick Santorum said at a campaign event last week. “We need a president who is on the side of affordable energy.”
High gas prices should open up an honest conversation about long term energy solutions. In the Spring of 2008, gas prices soared and it seemed for a second that America would finally have a reason to turn its attention to our our energy dependence. At home, Americans began driving less for the first time in three decades. But then prices dropped, the economy’s nosedive went into overdrive and, with it, Americans’ interest in energy.
Then in 2010, when the BP oil spill gushed 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and devastated the coast’s marine and wildlife. Suddenly, Americans began prioritizing environmental safety over energy production.
With soaring prices, our leaders once again have a captive audience. The problem is that the inspirational national conversation will be replaced with half-truths about the sources of our energy problems and the solutions to it. Republicans will crow about the lack of domestic oil production under President Obama and thump their chests over the Keystone XL Pipeline. In reality, domestic oil production is at an eight year-high. Just last week the Department of Interior issued permits to expand exploration in the Arctic. Iran’s export policies are currently driving up costs, not Obama’s domestic energy policy. But that’s not the story you’ll hear from many Republicans.
Furthermore, while Republicans try to point their finger at President Obama, voters may be looking in another direction. In 2008, polls found that the juxtaposition of soaring gas prices and oil companies’ record profits lead a majority of Americans (62%) to blame the rising cost of gas on “unethical behavior” by industry players. If Republicans push too hard on this issue, what starts as a conversation about Democrats and energy policy could easily become a conversation about Republicans and special interests.