Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama confronted two political realities this week:
- Rising gas prices are bad for a politician's poll numbers
- There is almost nothing a politician can do about it, at least in the short run.
The national average for gas rose another eight-tenths of a cent in the last 24 hours, to $3.856 a gallon, according to AAA. That's the 32nd consecutive day with an increase. Prices have risen nearly 31 cents a gallon during that streak, or nearly 9 percent.
CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley discusses the implications of the high gas prices for President Obama:
And during that same period, Obama has seen his approval ratings slide and an increase in Americans who say the country is heading in the wrong direction. The latest CNN Poll of Polls out Friday put the president's approval rating at 45 percent, with his disapproval number up to 52 percent. That's his lowest approval rating of 2011. (In contrast, 52 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing in mid-January).
Obama noted the poll numbers during a re-election fundraiser Thursday night in Los Angeles, telling the gathering at the tony Tavern Restaurant, "My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people."
Obama tried to empathize with hard-hit commuters at several stops on his West Coast swing. At another LA event, he said, "at a time of high gas prices - I know you've noticed," the crowd responded "Yes!"
The president said, "it's rough out there," trying to point out he's not that far removed from the impact. "I admit, Secret Service doesn't let me fill up (at) the pump anymore. But it hasn't been that long since I did."
In Saturday's weekly address, Obama again acknowledged the impact of the hikes on people: "Even if you haven't faced a job loss, it's still not easy out there. Your paycheck isn't getting bigger, while the cost of everything from college for your kids to gas for your car keeps rising. That's something on a lot of people's minds right now, with gas prices at $4 a gallon. It's just another burden when things were already pretty tough."
But, the president said, while the rising prices will be a political football, no one has a quick fix.
"Whenever gas prices shoot up, like clockwork, you see politicians racing to the cameras, waving three-point plans for $2 gas," he said. "You see people trying to grab headlines or score a few points. The truth is, there's no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away."
Still, Obama outlined his own attempt, having Attorney General Eric Holder launch a task force to look for fraud or manipulation of oil markets by traders and speculators.
And he repeated a populist criticism of Big Oil, pushing for the end of taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies. "That's $4 billion of your money going to these companies when they're making record profits and you're paying near record prices at the pump. It has to stop," Obama said.
Longer term, the president's address called for more investment in "clean, renewable fuels,” tying it into the Washington debate over the budget and proposed spending cuts.
"That's why I disagree so strongly with a proposal in Congress that cuts our investments in clean energy by 70 percent,” he said. “Yes, we have to get rid of wasteful spending - and make no mistake, we're going through every line of the budget scouring for savings. But we can do that without sacrificing our future."
The budget fight ultimately will play a bigger part in the president's numbers and the playing field for the 2012 election. Obama's attempt to frame the budget debate on clean energy against the prices at the pump is part of the strategy.
Also part of the strategy: Next week's schedule takes the president to Chicago to tape an appearance on "Oprah" and to Kennedy Space Center for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. A wide audience to make his case on the budget and a photo op at a mission commanded by Mark Kelly, the husband of Congressman Gabrielle Giffords, may be short-term political boosts as his re-election bid ramps up.
Obama likes to point out at his fund-raisers the unexpected crises he's seen since taking office. In Chicago, as he touted achievements in his first term, he told the crowd, "Along the way, we had to deal with pirates. Who thought we were going to have to deal with pirates? That wasn't in my campaign platform. Pandemic, earthquakes, oil spill."
He can add the gas prices to the list, with no easy answers.