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Signs that gasoline prices may have peaked signal relief to both American drivers and President Barack Obama, who Republicans have tried to tie to a climb in the costs.
Average prices at the pump have hovered at $3.92 a gallon this month, after an almost uninterrupted rise since mid- January. Some analysts now believe they’ll start to recede, as oil fell to an eight-week trading low on forecasts U.S. supplies would rise to their highest level for this time of year.
That may be good news for Obama, because gasoline costs had risen to among the top concerns for Americans and voters tend to blame incumbents for their economic anxieties, says Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University professor who has studied energy and politics.
“The lower they go, the less they will be an issue,” he said in an interview.
The effort Obama’s campaign has made to refute accusations by Republicans that his policies are partly responsible for rising gasoline costs reflects concern over the issue, Oppenheimer said.
“It’s always good for an administration to try to get out in front and say they are trying to do something,” he said.
The surge had pushed gasoline near the $4 a gallon mark. That’s “a political danger zone and symbolic threshold” for voters, according to Paul Bledsoe, senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based group that advises policy makers on health care, transportation, economic and energy issues.
Gasoline prices exceeded that mark in July 2008 during the previous presidential campaign, prompting calls by Republicans to “drill, baby, drill.”
A Gallup poll released March 28 found gasoline prices were second only to the economy on a list of issues voters are most concerned about, ahead of affordable health care and unemployment.
Gasoline prices may have peaked about that time, according to Trilby Lundberg, president of Lundberg Survey Inc. The Camarillo, California-based company surveys about 2,500 filling stations.
“Price hikes at the pump have been losing steam for weeks,” because of falling crude oil prices, Lundberg said.
Crude oil (OIL) for May delivery fell $1.25, or 1.2 percent, to $101.21 a barrel at 1 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures touched $100.75, the lowest intraday level since Feb. 15.
Upcoming talks between Iran and United Nations Security Council members eased fears of a supply disruption.
The average price of regular unleaded gasoline in the U.S. on April 9 was $3.927 a gallon, according to AAA. While that’s slightly lower than the day before, it was 18 cents higher than a year ago and up 65 cents since Jan. 1, according to AAA. .
U.S. average prices in February reached a record for the month, according to the Energy Information Administration, which tracks and analyzes U.S. energy data. Gasoline usually reaches a high during what’s known as the U.S. summer-driving season. EIA predicts prices from April to September will average about $3.92 a gallon, peaking at $3.96 in May.
Higher gasoline prices have been a major point of discussion in the presidential race so far because they pinch “consumer pocketbooks” and have the potential to slow economic growth, Bledsoe said.
Obama’s likely Republican rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has called Obama’s secretaries of Energy and Interior Department, and his head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the “gas-hike trio.”
The American Energy Alliance, a Washington-based group funded in part by oil companies, criticized Obama in a television commercial titled “Nine Dollar Gas” for supporting Solyndra LLC, the failed solar-panel maker that had won a $535 million loan guarantee, while blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.
The group said it was spending about $3.6 million to broadcast the advertisements in eight swing states, including Iowa, Florida, Ohio and Michigan, accusing the administration of contributing to the rise in gasoline prices.
Obama rejected Keystone, which would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, in January because he said a congressional deadline didn’t allow enough time to review the potential risks to an aquifer in Nebraska.
He invited TransCanada Corp. (TRP) to reapply for a permit for a new pathway, and the Calgary-based company has said it plans to do so.
In response to the Alliance ad, Obama’s campaign released a commercial noting that domestic oil production has increased since he took office, along with renewable energy development.
In speeches, Obama says he can’t control gasoline prices.
“The main reason the gas prices are high right now is because people are worried about what’s happening with Iran,” Obama said in a speech March 22 in Cushing, Oklahoma, starting point for the southern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline.
Even with the attacks on energy, Obama’s approval rating edged higher in March, according to a separate Gallup poll. It found 46 percent of respondents approved of the job he’s doing, up from 45 percent in February and March.
Bledsoe said if gasoline prices recede, the political debate will probably return to the broader economy and fears about unemployment.
“Economic growth and job creation are the twin peaks of political outcome in this election,” he said in an e-mail.
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