Written by Dominic Dezzutti

So far, the presidential campaign has seen many issues take center stage. However, during every presidential campaign, one issue generally rises to the top and becomes the defining issue for independent voters. With recent spikes showing no signs of slowing down, it looks like gas prices will likely become that defining issue in 2012.

And if gas prices do become that central issue, President Obama may find it to be a double or even a triple whammy for his re-election campaign to handle.

First, as President Obama uses the populist sword to push for tax hikes on the rich, he may feel the double edge of that sword when it comes to gas prices. The double edge of that sword is that the middle ground in America that wants to tax the rich also votes with their pocketbook.

If voters are paying more than $4 a gallon for gasoline in November, they won’t be looking for complicated foreign policy or speculator reasoning to explain the problem. They will be looking for someone to fix it.

And if President Obama cannot deliver a solution, many moderate voters will blame him for the problem, fair or not.

Secondly, “fixing” this problem is not something the President can simply do by himself. Gas prices are never that simple to address. But the worse news is that President Obama may find he is not only unable to solve the problem, but also in a position to make the problem worse.

As always, various foreign situations can cause prices to flux. But in this case, the situation in Iran, as they spar over proposed sanctions and deal with a potential strike against their nuclear program by Israel, has the potential to become a global game changer. Obama will be a pivotal player in that scenario, potentially making decisions that might be good for foreign policy but terrible for gas prices.

There’s one more part to this scenario that makes it extremely difficult for Obama. He recently nixed the Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas. This project has various environmental impact issues, and the oil from Canada would not necessarily go to American gas tanks. However, just the concept of sending non-Iranian oil across Canada directly to China instead of to Texas, amidst skyrocketing gas prices will make Obama look out of touch to many middle ground voters.

Like the tax issue for Republicans, Obama’s Keystone decision is hard to defend in thirty seconds and very easy to attack. That attack is made even easier and more effective in the middle of gas price inflation.

And finally, the “I” word brings us to the final reason why gas prices may be the major issue in this year’s campaign. When gas prices rise, as they did after Hurricane Katrina, all sorts of prices can increase including groceries, travel, goods, and essentially anything that requires fuel to get to market. The prices will rise without the value going up, which is essentially the definition of inflation. That word is radioactive in a campaign and one of the few real pieces of Kryptonite for incumbents.

While gas prices are not guaranteed to stay at $4 a gallon past the summer, few experts are showing much optimism on the subject. With the multitude of issues that are tied to gas prices, it will very likely become the focus of the campaign and will replace “jobs” as the key element of the economy conversation.

If it does, the eventual GOP nominee may finally have an issue that will resonate with unaffiliated voters and one that may serve as a key advantage over President Obama.
About The Blogger

– Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

  1. Jorman says:

    , I think it is generally true that oplepe look at oil and old technology and wind power as new technology, under the presumption that learning rates are exponential and so cost decreases are going to be larger in the newer technologies. Unfortunately, all the arguments you make about oil also apply to alternative energy sources, be they biofuels or wind/solar power. There are physical limits, significant unknowns, likely unintended environmental consequences, etc. and some of them will see radical cost decreases while others will not.I agree with you 100% on the effect of extreme events in the US in shifting the policy space. If you would have seen another major hurricane or two hit the US coast the year after Katrina, I don’t think there is any question that you would see much more stringent climate policy in the US and you would see a much more active role from the US on the international scene. You could ask the question of whether aggressive climate policy is more likely to happen with high oil prices, but I think the better question is to ask whether we have reasonable substitutes for carbon-based fuels if you believe in triple-digit and increasing oil prices, you are implicitly saying that the substitutes are much more expensive (true) and this also makes climate policy more challenging. On your second point, I don’t think that at all. I think most oplepe (myself included) have their favorite technologies that suit their lifestyles and preferences and would like to see those take over. It isn’t a big surprise to me that you are anti-electric-car, but you are certainly in favour of a different urban infrastructure model which is in many ways a bigger challenge than throwing some 30amp feeds out to oplepe’s detached garages in the burbs. I am all in favour of more integrated planning (we must talk about Edmonton’s Green Plan soon) and building environmental valuation into these decisions directly. We don’t disagree on as much as you think.

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