Gas Prices: What Can the President Do?

The media is either economically illiterate or deliberately biased on the matter.


Gasoline prices are skyrocketing, as many news reports attest. The stories blame a variety of factors for the uptick — from unrest in Egypt to rising summer demand. But, like the absence of Pierre from Sartre's café, the stories hold a gaping absence in which something ought to be. That something? The sinister implication that blame should fall on the president.

Such an implication — if not the outright accusation — was rarely out of public view throughout the eight years of President George W. Bush's stay in the White House.

A few years ago, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fumed that Americans were paying a whopping $2.91 per gallon for gasoline. Denouncing the "record gas prices … and record oil company profits," she blamed "President Bush, Speaker (Dennis) Hastert and the Majority Congress. … Big oil and gas companies wrote the Republican energy bill, and the American people paid the price."

"(We) need a president who can stand up to Big Oil and big energy companies and say enough is enough," declared Sen. Barack Obama.

"Today's record-high gas prices are the price that the American people are paying for the Bush Administration's failed energy policies," agreed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Democrats demanded hearings — and, once Pelosi became House majority leader, got them. "Congress Grills Oil Execs on Record Profits," ran the headlines.

Gasoline prices certainly did rise under Bush, soaring 180 percent from the day he took office to their all-time peak in July 2008. They plunged after that and, after adjusting for inflation, stood 9 percent lower when he left the White House than when he entered it. Since Obama took office they have doubled: Gasoline prices stood at $1.72 per gallon in January of 2009 and last month averaged $3.48.

Oil company profits have been humming right along, too.

You can't expect Democrats to blast their own president for any of this. But what about the press? The Business and Media Institute, an arm of the conservative Media Research Center, analyzed coverage for two comparable periods of gas-price increases, in 2008 and 2011. It found the big three networks did more than twice as many stories on gasoline sticker shock in 2008 as they did three years later.

Well, maybe other stories were competing for attention in 2011, right? Fair enough. Yet consider this: Stories about gasoline prices mentioned Bush, the government or the president 15 times as often in 2008 as they brought up Obama or the government in 2011.

This is particularly striking when you consider the two administrations' policies. The rap against Bush held that all he wanted to do was drill, drill, drill — an approach that would increase the supply of gasoline and potentially lower prices. Obama, on the other hand, insists "we can't just drill our way to lower gas prices." (Though he does say we can achieve the same result through proper tire inflation.) He has balked at approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

Before being appointed, Obama's first Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, said, "We have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." Yet when gas prices rise, none of this seems to merit even a mention.

If you think that difference in treatment arises from partisan or ideological bias, you're right. Last year, The Washington Post noted that "Democrats in 2006 were more inclined to blame Bush for high gas prices than Republicans are to blame Obama now." And the difference is more than minor: "73 percent of Democrats thought Bush could do something to reduce gas prices, while only 33 percent (of Democrats) think Obama could — a 40-point shift. By contrast, 47 percent of Republicans thought Bush could help bring gas prices down, compared with to the 65 percent who think Obama could — only an 18-point shift."

In other words, if you ask someone whether the president can affect gasoline prices, Democrats are far more likely to change their answer depending on who occupies the Oval Office. And as everyone knows, liberal Democrats outnumber conservative Republicans in the media by a ratio of something like 8 gajillion to one.

Setting aside partisan politics, the truth is that the president really can't do much to affect prices at the pump. More drilling — and good tire inflation — might make a marginal difference. Higher fuel-economy standards can help, too, although they create a boomerang effect (a lower marginal cost per mile encourages more driving).

On the whole, though, such policies don't matter much when — as Obama has pointed out — the number of cars in China has tripled in just five years. The effect on global oil prices from soaring demand in China, India, and other emerging economies will overwhelm just about anything the U.S. can do at home.

That's Econ 101 — and a lesson the media seem to have grasped. We'll see how good their retention is the next time a Republican moves into the White House.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.