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High US Gas Prices Could Have Political Impact

The rising cost of gasoline in the United States is the latest in a series of political problems facing President Bush and Republicans in Congress as they look ahead to congressional elections later this year.

Americans are digging deeper into their pockets to pay for the rising cost of gas and that could have an impact on the congressional mid-term elections in November.

"You got to bring it down, man. I can't pay my bills," says a man in New York.

The complaints of this man, and others like him around the country, pushed President Bush Tuesday to take several steps to try to bring down rising U.S. fuel prices, which still remain lower than in many other parts of the world.

Mr. Bush is temporarily suspending some environmental rules on gasoline and is deferring purchases for the nation's strategic oil reserve with the hope of increasing supply and driving prices down.

The president has also ordered the government to investigate whether oil companies are trying to take advantage of the situation.

"Americans understand, by and large, that the price of crude oil is going up and that their prices are going up. But what they don't want and will not accept is manipulation of the market. And neither will I," he said.

Opposition Democrats see a huge political opportunity as Americans fret about the high cost of gas stretching into the U.S. summer season, when many families take driving vacations.

"The president doesn't touch his friends at the big oil companies and it is nice that the president is finally talking about gas prices. But talk is cheap and gas isn't," says Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Political analysts warn that an extended period of high gas prices could fuel voter anger in November when Republicans defend their majorities in both houses of Congress against Democrats who are becoming increasingly confident of gaining seats.

"The president is not on the ballot so the only way to send a message to the government, to the White House, to Congress about the president's performance is via these congressional elections," says Washington-based analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

President Bush is also facing major challenges in trying to turn around negative public perceptions of his handling of Iraq and last year's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The latest CNN poll had the president's approval rating at 32 percent, the lowest in that survey so far. Sixty-nine percent of those asked in the poll said the rising gas prices were causing them severe financial hardship.

Mr. Bush has a new White House chief of staff in Josh Bolten and will soon have a new press spokesman in former journalist Tony Snow. But political experts say he may need to make more changes in the weeks to come.

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, who recently wrote a biography of the president called Rebel in Chief, was a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

"You want to recapture the aura of a new term beginning and I think he can do that but he is going to have to do many more personnel changes," he said. "I am sure he is going to do some at the White House. Whether he will do more beyond that, I don't know."

Other analysts believe Mr. Bush's political fate - and that of congressional Republicans - is still tied primarily to developments in Iraq.

"I mean this is primarily about Iraq," says Stephen Hess, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There is no sense talking about his education policy or something like that. I mean he has been in office now for nearly six years. He has got one major policy in which he has thrown all the chips into the game. Is it going to work? We shall see."

Rising gas prices have taken their toll on previous U.S. presidents.

Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford both dealt with the impact of the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

And high gas prices and shortages were also a factor in President Jimmy Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

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