WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama kicked off a two-day, four-state tour Wednesday to brag about his energy policy, an attempt to escape political fallout for soaring gasoline prices that could threaten his re-election.
The tour — with photo-ready stops at a solar-energy power plant in Nevada, oil and gas drilling rigs in New Mexico, an oil pipeline site in Oklahoma and a research lab in Ohio — comes as gas prices keep rising, Republicans keep blaming the president, and American voters keep fuming each time they fill up their tanks.
While senior administration officials insist that the president did not launch the trip in response to alarming poll numbers, the fact is that rising gas prices _now averaging $3.86 a gallon for regular — threaten the president's political standing as he heads into the election.
First, by 63 percent to 37 percent, Americans say gas prices already are causing them financial hardship, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll. And energy analysts warn that prices could keep soaring as the summer travel season begins.
Second, they're not buying the White House argument that the president is largely powerless against world market forces that dilute any price benefit from rising U.S. oil and gas production. A CBS-New York Times poll found that Americans by 54 percent to 36 percent think he can do a lot to impact prices.
Third, Americans by a margin of 65 percent to 26 percent don't like how Obama's handling the problem, according to the ABC survey.
Obama is using the trip to argue that he's doing everything he can, pursuing an "all of the above" strategy that's increasing oil and gas production while also stressing alternative energy and conservation to reduce demand.
At a solar power plant in Boulder City, Nev., on Wednesday, he vowed to use "every available source of energy."
He ridiculed Republicans for opposing federal spending to spur solar energy technology, likening it to the discovery of the New World. "If these guys were around when Columbus set sail, they'd be charter members of the Flat Earth Society," he said.
Looking ahead to a later visit Wednesday at the site of oil drilling on federal land in New Mexico, he emphasized that U.S. oil and gas production is at an eight-year high, despite claims that he's blocking oil drilling. "We are going to continue producing oil and gas at a record pace," he said.
On Thursday, he'll visit Cushing, Okla., and announce an order to speed federal approval of a pipeline that will carry oil to refineries in Texas, aimed at relieving a bottleneck.
If the stops were meant to ease voter anger, Republicans worked to make sure unhappiness remained centered on Obama. They continued hammering him on gas prices, a political weakness even as the economy is starting to gain strength.
"After watching gas prices more than double, President Obama has begun a cross-country trip to rewrite history on his own energy record," said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "But no amount of excuses and election-year promises can change the fact that this president is to blame for stifling oil production and driving up prices at the pump."
Campaigning outside a Louisiana company that services Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, Republican candidate Rick Santorum said Wednesday that Obama could do more to open federal land to oil and gas drilling. He also said Obama's "appeasement" emboldened Iran to threaten oil shipments through the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, adding to uncertainty and driving up prices.
In Washington, Republicans dismissed the president's tour as a taxpayer-financed political ad.
"A farcical, high-octane public relations tour," said Brendan Buck, press secretary to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"With soaring energy costs dragging down the president's approval ratings, not to mention Americans' disposable income, the president is firing up the White House P.R. machine to give the false impression he supports Republicans' all of the above energy approach," Buck said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney shot back that Republicans are distorting the facts to score political points.
"There is a sustained effort to try to achieve some political gain out of the challenge presented to average folks out there by the price of gas at the pump," he said aboard Air Force One en route to Nevada. "But the reality is oil and gas production in the United States has increased under President Obama. Reliance on foreign oil has decreased significantly under President Obama."
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