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Blaming Presidents For Higher Gas Prices Misses Bigger Picture

How big a role do U.S. presidents really play in controlling gas prices? Prices were well over $4 a gallon in La Jolla, Calif. on March 8. (Mike Blake /Reuters /Landov)
How big a role do U.S. presidents really play in controlling gas prices? Prices were well over $4 a gallon in La Jolla, Calif. on March 8. (Mike Blake /Reuters /Landov)

Every time U.S. gas prices rise to painful levels which is often, the political opponents of the sitting president blame him for causing or allowing the increases which will spur some journalists to dutifully report that, no, presidents have very little control over day-to-day gas pump prices.

This time is no different. With Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers blaming President Obama for higher gas prices, Washington Post journalist Steven Mufson, who covers the energy industry, reports that experts pin the blame for higher prices on everything but Obama's policies.

There's higher demand in Japan and China for oil, though for different reasons. Meanwhile, some supplies from places like Sudan and Yemen have been disrupted.

But that doesn't matter because, just as with the economy over which presidents also have little control, presidents nevertheless get the blame when things go badly, in the case of gas when prices rise to the point where a trip to the gas station leaves most consumers with sticker shock.

And as Mufson points out, for Obama it's a case of the chickens coming home to roost. He himself made higher gas prices a campaign issue four years ago as part of his argument to voters to put a Democrat in the White House.

"... During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama said in a campaign speech that 'here in Ohio, you're paying nearly $3.70 a gallon for gas — 2 1/2 times what it cost when President Bush took office.' "

Politicians, Obama included, do this because it often works, this business of blaming rival politicians for higher gas prices.

It's too bad, however, because such finger pointing represents an often cynical misdiagnosis of the problem which arguably makes it harder to address its true causes.

For instance, most people probably operate on the assumption that cars have gotten far more fuel efficient over the decades. But that would be wrong.

Here's the lead on a July 2009 story from the British publication New Scientist:

"The average fuel efficiency of the US vehicle fleet has risen by just 3 miles per gallon since the days of the Ford Model T, and has barely shifted at all since 1991.

"Those are the conclusions reached by Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. They analysed the fuel efficiency of the entire US vehicle fleet of cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses from 1923 to 2006."

Now, a lot of people made a lot of decisions that led to that state of affairs in fuel efficiency, from auto industry executives to Washington policy makers to consumers.

Given that, blaming presidents every time gas prices soar really seems to be missing the big picture. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, "We have met the enemy... and he is us."

Copyright NPR 2022.




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