US President Barack Obama on Monday sought to contain fallout from rising gasoline prices, but polls showed his approval rating slumping as pain at the pump raised new doubts about his re-election hopes.
In a string of interviews with local television stations in swing states that could decide November’s election, Obama blamed soaring fuel prices on fears over a war with Iran, but acknowledged that Americans were hurting.
He also said there was no “silver bullet” to cutting gas prices that now average about US$4 a gallon (US$1.06 per liter) and are taxing consumer confidence, just as the economy seemed to be finally gathering pace after years of crisis.
“As long as gas prices are going up, people are going to feel like I’m not doing enough and I understand that,” Obama told WFTV in Orlando, Florida, a state which could be crucial to his hopes of winning a second term.
However, Obama also hammered Republican rivals, who see rising gas prices as a way to weaken the president, despite an improving jobs market.
He was particularly caustic about Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who says he has a plan to get gasoline down to US$2.50 a gallon.
“Nobody believes that,” Obama said. “They know that’s just politics. Anybody who says we can get gas down to two bucks a gallon just isn’t telling the truth.”
Andrea Saul, a spokesperson for Republican presidential front runner Mitt Romney, also weighed in.
“With gas prices setting new records, Americans won’t stand for more of the same from the Obama White House,” she said. “This country needs a leader like Mitt Romney, who has proposed bold, pro-growth energy solutions that will create jobs and help secure America’s energy future.”
Obama said that the global price of oil was being influenced by jitters over a possible unilateral strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear program.
“The bigger driver of these gas prices is speculation of war in the Middle East, which is why we’ve been trying to reduce loose talk about a war there,” Obama said.
However, there were new signs on Monday that US voters are not buying Obama’s insistence that there is little he can do about rising gasoline prices.
A New York Times/CBS News poll found that the president’s approval rating had plunged nine points to 41 percent in just a month, reflecting the tough political environment he faces as his re-election fight looms.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll also found that Obama’s recent gains in popularity were being undermined by rising gasoline prices, pegging his approval rating at 46 percent, down from 50 percent a month ago.
Two-thirds of those asked said they disapproved with the way Obama was handling rising pump prices.
Seeking to stem the damage, the president released a report on Monday claiming notable successes in weaning the US off foreign oil.
The report says the US cut imports of oil from abroad by 10 percent last year and also touts a rise in domestic production, new energy efficiency standards for cars and renewable energy projects.
However, Republicans say that the boom in oil production has come despite Obama administration policies which they say strangle the domestic energy industry in order to encourage new renewable energy sources.
The administration says that the price hikes are cyclical and says the president has limited power to impact prices, though Obama wants to end subsidies to big oil firms that are making huge profits while prices rise.
The report says that domestic oil and gas production is at the highest level in a decade, while improved energy efficiency measures funded by the administration in more than a million homes is also cutting energy use.
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