A woman pumps gas into her car on Nov, 15, 2013 in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty

Political debate over gas prices heats up

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, average U.S. gas prices reached a seven-year low in February 2016. That average has been steady increasing ever since, reaching a four-year high this month.

And as Politico  noted, the result is a renewed political debate that’s likely to become an issue in the 2018 midterms.

President Donald Trump is hoping a wave of tax-cut-fueled economic euphoria will boost his approval ratings and his party’s political fortunes this fall. A sharp spike in gas prices could slam the brakes on all of that.

As Americans head out for traditional Memorial Day weekend road trips, they’ll confront gas prices of nearly $3 a gallon, the highest since 2014 and a 25 percent spike since last year.

Democratic leaders clearly see an opportunity they’re eager to exploit. They held an event at a Capitol Hill gas station this week, and the Daily Beast  reported that the party is “preparing an aggressive assault on the Trump administration” over this issue.

The politics of this fight get a little tricky, though Trump unwittingly put himself in a difficult position he may find difficult to explain.

Let’s start with a basic truth: in general, presidents have limited influence over what American consumers pay at the pump for a global commodity. When Barack Obama took office, for example, gas prices were collapsing, not because of any policies the Democratic president had implemented, but because the international economy was in freefall. Recessions depress economic activity, which lessens the demand for fuel, and pushes prices lower.

Similarly, as Obama’s economic agenda pulled the nation out of the Great Recession, gas prices climbed throughout his first term. Republicans howled, but the trend was entirely predictable, and there wasn’t much of anything the White House could do about it.

The trouble for Trump, however, is three-fold.

First, the Republican can’t snap his fingers and lower prices, but his foreign policies – most notably regarding Iran – can affect the marketplace, at least on the margins. Democrats may push their luck while playing the blame game, but it’s not ridiculous to suggest Trump’s agenda may have some impact.

Second, the White House and its GOP allies are counting on tax breaks to buoy their electoral efforts, but as gas prices climb, many middle-class consumers won’t feel any richer as a result of the Republican policy.

And third, if Trump pushes back against Democratic criticisms by saying he can’t dictate what consumers pay at the pump, his detractors can simply point to his extensive record on the subject.

For starters, the president took a victory lap over low gas prices during the Fourth of July weekend in 2017. During the Obama-era, Trump repeatedly insisted that a president had direct influence over the price of gasoline, even calling for Obama’s firing in 2012 over the tags at the pump.

“Trump previously claimed he would have tremendous power over higher gas prices but he has failed to fix them,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

It was bizarre, but he really did publicly suggest, more than once, that he could help influence gas prices.

The proper defense would be for the White House to say Trump had no idea what he was talking about – a defense that would have the benefit of being true – but that’s not a line the president’s allies generally like to repeat.