Inside the Gas-Prices Polling Numbers

by J. T. Young

How politically serious is the spike in America’s gas prices for Obama? Looking inside the poll numbers, it’s even worse than it first appears. In just weeks, rising gas prices have already outstripped issues that have dogged Obama throughout his presidency.

This week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll (1,003 adults surveyed, MOE +/- 3.1 percent, released 3/12) showed Obama’s overall job approval dropping 4 percentage points from its February survey. More importantly, his approval/disapproval rating for handling gas prices was just 26/65. That’s lower than his ratings for the economy (38%/59%) and the federal budget deficit 32/63).

These numbers’ implications are worth seriously considering.

The economy is everything, the whole enchilada. If an administration has one thing they want to go right, this is that one thing. For the last three years, it hasn’t been. The economy fell in quarter three of 2008 and did not reach its pre-recession level until the third quarter of 2011, and the Congressional Budget Office is projecting real growth of just 2 percent this year. Unemployment is 8.3 percent.

The federal budget measures the government’s impact on the economy and is the economic variable over which an Administration has the greatest control. For the last three years, it has been out of control. Since 2008, the federal government has spent almost 25 percent of everything America has produced, the federal deficit has been a cumulative $4 trillion, and the debt held by the public has increased 75 percent. CBO estimates that this year’s deficit will again be over $1 trillion.

Considering both these big issues and their duration, it is no wonder the public has given the administration low approval ratings for them.

In comparison, the price of gas prices is a relatively smaller item in the grand scheme. Yet in short order, they have overtaken both the economy and the budget deficit in the public’s mind. Unlike the macro problems with which Washington is consumed, gas prices are a micro problem that affects what Americans consume.

Unlike Washington’s macro problems, which are measured in trillions and billions, Americans measure gas prices in dollars and cents. To Americans they are tangible and understandable. They have a pervasive and immediate impact on Americans’ lives.

All this is troubling enough for the administration. However, what should be even more troubling is the possibility that gas prices already are, or will soon become, a proxy for Americans’ deeper economic and political frustrations with a Washington they increasingly do not understand.

— J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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