LARGO, Md. – In what has become a weekly ritual, President Obama on Thursday defended his administration’s energy policy, in the face of relentlessly rising gasoline prices, to an American public that believes he can do more to ease the pain at the pump.
Mr. Obama cycled through now-familiar themes, promoting his record of increased domestic oil and gas production; stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks; and investments in alternative sources of energy, like biofuels, wind and solar power. The administration's energy policy has been the focus of many speeches the president has given in recent weeks.
But on Thursday he delivered a notably sarcastic rebuttal to his Republican presidential challengers, particularly Newt Gingrich, who has promised, if elected, to bring down gas prices to $2.50 a gallon, and has ridiculed the president’s talk of making fuel from algae.
Without naming Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Obama said these gibes – by people “who are running for a certain office” – revealed a streak of ignorance similar to those who predicted that cars would not supplant horse-drawn buggies or that television would never elbow out radio.
“If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society,” Mr. Obama said to a cheering crowd at Prince George’s Community College here. “They would not have believed the earth was round.”
Turning the spotlight on the remarks of his opponents may make sense because Mr. Obama’s defense of his role in rising gas prices rests on an uncomfortable claim: he cannot do much about it. It was a theme he struck again on Thursday
“There’s no silver bullet,” the president declared. “Anybody who tells you otherwise isn’t really looking for a solution; they’re trying to ride the political wave of the moment.”
In Maryland, the average price per gallon is $3.86, 6 cents higher than the national average and 16 cents higher than it was a week ago. At an Exxon station near where Mr. Obama was speaking, unleaded gas was selling for $4.49 a gallon, one of the highest rates in the state.
Recent polls have suggested that gas prices are hurting Mr. Obama, with many people saying he could do more to stem the increases. In a New York Times/CBS News poll published on Monday, the president’s approval rating fell to 41 percent from 50 percent a month earlier, with 47 percent disapproving of his performance.
A senior administration official dismissed that poll as an outlier, but he acknowledged that gasoline prices would be a drag on Mr. Obama for the next few months. The White House is most concerned that high gas prices will hobble the still-fragile economic recovery.
On Monday, the White House issued a progress report that summarized its efforts to implement an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. The report’s highlights included the president’s oft-repeated observation that domestic production of oil and natural gas has risen every year he has been in office, making the United States a net exporter of energy.
In his speech, Mr. Obama said the White House pushed for an extension of the payroll tax cut, in part because it anticipated that gas prices might go up – a rationale that did not figure prominently in the administration’s arguments last year for extending the tax cut.
Addressing critics who say the United States could meet its energy needs through more drilling, Mr. Obama said his administration had opened millions of acres in 23 states to drilling, as well as an offshore area in the Gulf of Mexico that could yield 400 million barrels of oil.
There are a few places, Mr. Obama noted with a smile, where he has not authorized drilling: the National Mall; the middle of Chesapeake Bay; or underneath the houses of the people in his audience. When politicians tell you, “Drill, Baby, Drill,” the president said to the crowd, answer, “We’re doing that. Tell me something new.”
The youthful audience responded with chants of “Yes, we can” and “Four more years,” though two people collapsed during Mr. Obama’s remarks. The president reminded people to eat, if they knew they were going to be standing for a long time.