Outside editorial: Gas up, Obama down, Chu backs off

The following editorial appeared in the Orange County Register:

Soaring gasoline prices have dragged down President Barack Obama’s poll ratings, and now his energy secretary says he no longer wants prices to reach the even-higher European levels.

In 2008, before his appointment, Steven Chu told the Wall Street Journal: “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.”

It’s doubtful Chu’s reversal is unrelated to Obama’s sinking poll numbers.

We suspect Chu’s epiphany is a variation of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign theme. This time, rather than “the economy,” Chu’s flip flop seems to acknowledge: “It’s the gasoline prices, stupid.”

It doesn’t take a political genius to see how rising gasoline prices already have hurt the president’s campaign. “Gas prices sink Obama’s ratings on economy, bring parity to race for White House,” a Washington Post news headline blared Wednesday.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the president’s handling of gasoline prices, according to a Post-ABC News poll. “Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue,” the Post reported.

Despite Chu’s previous stance about the desirability of Europe’s $10-a-gallon prices to discourage fossil fuel use and to make alternative energy competitive, with Election Day now less than eight months away, the secretary advocates a completely different strategy.

“I no longer share that view,” Chu told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday. “Of course, we don’t want the price of gasoline to go up. We want it to go down.”

Inconveniently for Chu and the president, the public thinks the Obama administration can remedy rising prices. But the president recently lamented, “(W)e don’t have a silver bullet when it comes to gas prices.”

Some administration-friendly commentators sympathize. Charlie Rose on Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning” seemed to excuse Obama: “The president has a point ... . There’s little that he can do ... in the short term to affect gas prices, and gas prices hurts his political chances.”

But CBS News colleague Bob Schieffer pointed up the president’s problem: “(T)he problem is ... people think there are things he can do about it.”

Among those people are 71 Democrats in Congress who complain that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission hasn’t done enough to curb speculation in energy markets under the Dodd-Frank regulations. But Politico, a national politics website, underscored the president’s dilemma.

“The administration finds itself over a barrel,” Politico’s Josh Boak reported. The commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have yet to define what firms and products come under the new trading laws that were supposed to go into effect at the start of 2011.

Even if the Obama administration suddenly goes after futures traders, it likely would have little, if any, effect on prices, which are far more influenced by supply and demand, Middle East instability and the government’s own restrictions on domestic production.

How likely is it all those factors will be ameliorated between now and November?

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