MIAMI — US President Barack Obama tried to head off Republican criticism over rising gasoline prices Thursday, ridiculing their responses as bumper-sticker policies designed to win an election, not to solve the problem.
Visiting the hard-hit election battleground of Florida, a feisty Obama responded to a barrage of Republican criticism that has accompanied a 13 percent increase in gasoline prices over the last year.
“There are no quick fixes to this problem,” a jacketless Obama told supporters at the University of Miami. “There is no silver bullet.”
Accusing Republicans of trying to profit from higher prices at the pump, Obama lamented: “Some politicians always see this as a political opportunity. Only in politics do people greet bad news so enthusiastically.”
“Since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for two dollar gas. I’ll save you the suspense: Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling,” he said.
“We’ve heard the same thing for 30 years,” he added.
“Well the American people aren’t stupid. You know that’s not a plan — especially since we’re already drilling. It’s a bumper sticker. It’s not a strategy to solve our energy challenge.”
Average prices currently stand at $3.61 a gallon, but the American Automobile Association has predicted they could reach $4.25 a gallon by May.
That would put a gallon well beyond the $4.00 level that most Americans see as acceptable — leaving Obama politically vulnerable and with few tools to influence market prices as the country races toward November polls.
Economists have warned that rising energy prices could hold back the fragile US recovery.
“Higher energy prices could slow the (stock) market advance and may portend some loss of economic momentum,” said Barry Knapp, an analyst with Barclays Capital.
Obama could try to slow rising prices by putting petroleum from the national strategic reserve on the market, but that is a risky proposition.
Since being created in the 1970s, the reserve has been used only a handful of times, most recently in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and by Obama last year as the war in Libya raged.
Sensing weakness, Republican presidential candidates have seized on rising prices as evidence that Obama’s energy policies have failed.
White House hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich point to Obama’s opposition to both offshore drilling and the construction of a pipeline from Canada, and oil company tax breaks, as contributing to higher gas prices.
Republicans also point to the bankruptcy of solar panel firm Solyndra after it received $535 million in government loan guarantees as evidence that Obama has failed.
On Thursday, Obama was at pains to empathize with struggling consumers, while arguing that the president has little direct control over prices.
“Just like last year, the biggest thing that’s causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East — this time in Iran,” he said.
“When uncertainty increases, speculative trading on Wall Street can drive up prices even more. So there are short-term factors at work here,” Obama added.
“Over the long term, the biggest reason oil prices will rise is growing demand in countries like China, India, and Brazil.”
Obama said those trends reinforced the need for his “all of the above” approach to energy, which advocates more domestic drilling, better fuel standards, lower consumption and developing non-fossil fuels.
In response, Gingrich — who has promised to bring gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon — accused Obama of making excuses.
“Instead of offering a real plan to lower the cost of gasoline, President Obama offered excuses and fantasies,” Gingrich said in a statement.
“Blaming instability in the Middle East for high gas prices is not leadership. Neither is promising magic future technologies that won’t satisfy today’s energy needs.”