Voters blame president for gas prices, but experts disagree

March 14, 2012

By Steven Mufson, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — How much does the president have to do with the price of gasoline?

A lot, American voters say. According to oil experts and economists, not so much — at least in the short term.

Today’s oil prices are the product of years and decades of exploration, automobile design and ingrained-consumer habits combined with political events in places such as Sudan and Libya, anxiety about possible conflict with Iran, and the energy aftershocks of last year’s earthquake in Japan.

“This notion that a politician can wave a magic wand and impact the 90-million-barrel-a-day global-oil market is preposterous,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Clinton administration official.

The price of gasoline is a hardy perennial in presidential campaigns. President Carter struggled with high gas prices, which had doubled since the Iranian revolution.

What can the president control?

Republicans are saying President Obama has not done enough to promote domestic drilling, but the U.S. drilling-rig count is twice as high as it was in 2009.

With the exception of a spike in 2008, the rig count is higher now than any year since the early 1980s, according to WTRG Economics.

“Everyone takes credit for what’s on their watch,” said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

U.S. policy makes a difference, energy experts say, but with a long delay, whether it is a matter of drilling for more oil or increasing the fuel efficiency of the automobile fleet, which takes a decade or more to turn over.

“There is a substantial time lag between the adoption of energy policies (on the demand and supply sides) and their impact on the market,” said Jay Hakes, a former administrator of the Energy Information Administration and now director of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

“George W. Bush deserves some credit for signing the 2007 legislation that has helped the current situation from getting worse, but (he) will never get any credit.”

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