Conventional wisdom holding that President Obama’s approval ratings were recovering and he was on track for a smooth reelection suffered a blow yesterday with the release of two new polls. First, the Washington Post/ABC survey found his ratings reversing – to 46 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval, from 50 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval a month ago. Then, the New York Times/CBS poll came out showing Obama’s approval rating sinking to 41 percent (an all-time-low in the survey), with disapproval jumping to 47 percent. Last month, the poll found him with a 50 percent approval rating and an 43 disapproval rating. Both polls found that even with overall economic prospects slowly improving, Americans are increasingly unhappy with rising gas prices, and they’re holding Obama responsible. Though this news provides some comfort to Republicans who had been worried about Obama’s improved reelection chances, they shouldn’t pin their hopes on the idea of gas prices remaining high up through the fall.
To be clear, I’m not attempting to predict where gas prices will be this October, when voters begin to solidify their opinions about the state of the country before the election. My only point is that gas prices are highly volatile and it’s often hard to differentiate short-term fluctuations from long-term trends. And even when there is an upward trend, there could be shorter-term dips along the way. Gas prices soared in the spring and summer of 2008, eventually exceeding over $4 a gallon, and it promised to be a major issue in that year’s election. Who can forget the chants of “Drill Baby Drill!” at the Republican National Convention? But by the time Election Day arrived, oil prices were taking a nosedive as the global economy crashed and pushed down demand, and the issue turned out to be a non-factor.
Obviously, there are plenty of reasons, such as instability in the Middle East, to expect that oil prices will continue to rise throughout the year. And any dip in oil prices from a collapsing economy would clearly not be good news for Obama, either. But the point is that oil prices are highly unpredictable, so it would be unwise for Republicans to assume they’ll continue to drag down Obama’s ratings. Any political analysts who think they can say for sure what gas will cost in seven months should quit their jobs and go into commodities trading.