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Stung by high gas prices, Obama hits the road

If politics is the art of repetition, an artful Barack Obama is racing to out-repeat Republicans, in the process betraying his fear about gas prices hurting his re-election prospects.

Faced with relentless criticism over higher prices at the pump – even charges that he relishes expensive gas as a way to wean Americans off oil – Mr. Obama has recently spent more time in public countering these accusations than talking about anything else.

In the past month, the U.S. President has devoted 10 speeches and countless local radio and TV interviews to this theme alone. Now, he is embarking on a four-state junket aimed entirely at persuading voters that his "all of the above" strategy beats "drill, baby, drill."

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It is a delicate balancing act for a Democrat who is at once trying to contain the wrath of electorally critical working-class voters, angry about a 20-per-cent increase in the cost of filling up so far this year, all while defending his commitment to green energy.

Last week, the President decried drill-happy Republicans as "founding members of the Flat Earth Society." But he went on to claim credit for opening up new areas to drilling.

The high-wire act is encapsulated in the President's itinerary on Wednesday and Thursday, which will take him from visiting a solar-power plant in Nevada to touring oil fields in New Mexico and touting an oil pipeline in Oklahoma. He ends the trip with an energy speech in Ohio, a crucial swing state.

The stop in Cushing, Okla., where the President is to discuss his efforts to "support the infrastructure that helps us leverage our domestic resources," has raised eyebrows among environmentalists, who have begun to wonder whether they have been had.

Cushing is the starting point for the southern phase of the disputed Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada announced last month that it would proceed with that leg of the overall $7.6-billion (U.S.) project while it awaits a State Department permit for the rest of it.

The Obama administration postponed approval of the full Keystone project, which would carry about 800,000 barrels daily of Alberta crude to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast, after high-profile protests last summer mobilized much of the President's base against it.

The Cushing-to-Houston leg of the pipeline does not require federal approval since it does not cross an international border.

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"Pres. off to Oklahoma to celebrate southern leg of Keystone," prominent anti-Keystone activist Bill McKibben tweeted on Friday. "This is a calculated slap, and it stings."

Building the southern phase of Keystone could actually contribute to higher retail gas prices in some U.S. markets. That is because the current bottleneck depresses prices for domestic and Canadian crude.

No matter, Mr. Obama is scrambling to prove he is doing everything to increase domestic oil supplies and Republicans have persuaded voters that Keystone is part of the equation.

Mr. Obama has also pointed out that domestic production has risen to an eight-year high, and oil imports fallen to a 17-year low, on his watch.

Republicans fire back that production is up because of actions taken under George W. Bush, while imports are down because the economy remains mired in a slow recovery.

And they blame a President hostile to fossil fuels for partly fuelling higher gas prices.

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"When [Mr. Obama]campaigned [in 2008]he said he wanted to raise the price of gasoline," GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said on Sunday, referring to Mr. Obama's suggestion then that climate-change legislation could increase energy prices.

There is little evidence that gas prices, taken alone, are politically toxic for incumbent presidents. But with projections of higher prices still in coming months, the White House is clearly feeling vulnerable.

For the first three years of his presidency, Mr. Obama religiously touted clean energy, granting billions in subsidies to alternative-energy companies. The 2010 BP oil spill put an overwhelming majority of Americans on his side.

But the public mood has shifted. A poll conducted for The Hill newspaper and released Monday found that 58 per cent of voters think Mr. Obama's policies will lead to higher gasoline prices. The margin of error was 3 per cent.

So, the President is practising the art of repetition as if his political life depended on it.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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