For Barack Obama, the decision to stall construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is shaping up to have been one of those it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time mistakes.
In November, when the Obama administration moved to postpone approval of Keystone until 2013, the American voters who knew and cared most about the pipeline were against it.
Opposition to Keystone among environmentalists in the Democratic base and Nebraskans unhappy with TransCanada’s proposed route for the pipeline, aimed at transporting Alberta crude to the Gulf of Mexico coast, politically trumped support from big business.
Going into an election year, stalling seemed like a smart strategy.
Now, with rising gas prices pummelling Mr. Obama’s poll numbers, the President is vulnerable to Republican charges that his stonewalling on Keystone is representative of an overall hostility to fossil fuels that is driving up costs at the pump.
Current oil prices are overwhelmingly a function of global supply and demand, stoked by geopolitical factors such as the prospect of near-term conflagration with Iran.
But in part because of Republican caricatures of him as an arugula-eating elitist, and in part because of his own mostly healthy obsession with clean energy and electric cars, Mr. Obama is easily depicted as someone who cares little about short-term gas prices.
Fully 65 per cent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of gas prices, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. The issue, more than any other, is reviving the prospects of his Republican presidential rivals.
How worried is the White House? Judging by the number of times Mr. Obama has claimed credit for raising domestic oil production and driving imported oil to a 17-year low, it must be petrified. Mr. Obama has recently given half a dozen speeches touting his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, though all conveniently omitted mention of Keystone.
Republicans counter, with some justification, that a tepid economy is the main reason imports are down, while actions taken by the former Bush administration are responsible for the modest increase in U.S. oil production.
Newt Gingrich, who promises to bring gas down to $2.50 (U.S.) a gallon from the current average of about $3.80, now calls the GM Volt “Obama’s car” and slams the $7,500 federal tax credit given to the overwhelmingly well-heeled purchasers of the electric vehicle.
“You can’t,” as Mr. Gingrich so artfully puts it, “put a gun rack in a Volt.”
Approving Keystone’s construction in November would not have moved short-term gas prices one bit. But it would have heralded a near-term increase in oil supply from a friendly neighbour and sent a signal to average Americans that the President cares about their pocketbooks at least as much as he does about the consciences of Volt-driving arugula eaters.
Instead, Mr. Obama raised Keystone’s profile to the point that even those in his own party are distancing themselves from the decision to postpone. No wonder. A recent Pew Research poll found that of the 62 per cent of Americans who had heard about Keystone by early February, fully two-thirds supported its approval.
A decision that looked politically shrewd a few months ago now seems too clever by half.