For much of President Obama's term, White House aides were convinced the main barrier to his reelection was the worrisome unemployment rate. But even as the economy bounces back, a new political obstacle has emerged: rising gas prices.
Trying to defuse the issue, the White House has arranged a slew of speeches and public events to reassure Americans that Obama has a plan for cutting gas prices.
On Wednesday, Obama flew to Pennsylvania — a perennial swing state — for a town-hall-style meeting devoted to energy. He travels Friday to Indiana, another important state on the 2012 election calendar, where he will appear at an event in Indianapolis that is also focused on high oil prices.
"It's on the minds of a lot of people right now because you're paying more at the pump. Anybody notice that?" Obama told workers at a wind turbine plant outside Philadelphia. "For a lot of people, money was already tight before gas prices started climbing."
Obama's attention to the issue comes amid new polling that has implications for the presidential race. With the economic recovery gaining momentum, fewer people say they are jittery about losing their job. But a growing percentage cites rising gas prices as a chief concern.
The Pew Research Center is coming out with a report this week showing that a majority of Americans say gas prices have a "substantial impact" on their household financial condition.
"The bottom line is, unless gas prices go down, it puts the president in mortal peril," said Douglas Schoen, a former campaign consultant to President Clinton. "Every American faces higher gas prices every day, so in a certain sense, it has the likelihood of being a more serious problem than the unemployment rate, because 9% are unemployed but 100% of the American people have to deal with the impact directly and indirectly of rising fuel prices."
Gas prices have risen 30% over the last year and now average $3.69 per gallon for regular grade, according to AAA. Potential Republican opponents are taking notice. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has set up an exploratory committee for the 2012 race, released a video last week that flashed images of gas stations showing prices topping $4 per gallon.
Mindful of the public's frustration with rising prices, the White House is pounding the message that it is working toward a solution.
While taking questions at the White House this week about the budget impasse, Obama worked in a reference to Americans who are "worrying about gas prices," adding, "and that's what they want us worrying about."
David Plouffe, a senior White House advisor and Obama's 2008 campaign manager, sent an email to supporters last week that carried the reminder that prices peaked under former President George W. Bush.
Even as he coped with a new military conflict in Libya, Obama delivered a speech last week reiterating his interest in boosting domestic oil production, cutting foreign oil imports and converting to cleaner energy sources.
"We are making progress on jobs and need to make more progress on jobs," said David Axelrod, a former senior White House aide who is part of Obama's 2012 campaign team. "But people are also grappling with stagnant wages and rising prices. That's a legitimate, important concern for people and we have to pay close attention to it."
It's not clear that Obama can do much in the short term to dramatically bring down prices. A report last month by the Energy Information Administration, a government agency, predicted that gas prices would average $3.56 this year and stay about the same in 2012.
While Obama spoke last week about "continuing to increase America's oil supply," an energy agency forecast showed domestic oil production declining from 2011-12.
Obama sought to dampen expectations that immediate relief was on the way.
Taking questions from employees at the Pennsylvania company Gamesa, Obama was asked about high gas prices.
"Now, there are a couple of things we can do, but I'm going to be honest with you," he said. "There's not much we can do next week or two weeks from now." He advised people to trade in an 8-miles-per-gallon beater for a fuel-efficient car built by an American company.
Energy experts agreed that gas prices are likely to remain high in the face of strong worldwide demand.
"In the short term, there's very little that can be done," said David Pumphrey, deputy director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We have a situation that's driven by two things: strong economic growth in Asia that had already started to push prices up and uncertainty in the Middle East."
As Obama tries to soothe the motoring public, though, he risks disappointing his base. Some young voters attracted to his promises during the 2008 campaign are displeased with an Obama energy policy that still sees a place for oil, clean coal and nuclear power.
Many former Obama campaign volunteers are attending a conference in Washington next week where they will use organizing techniques learned in the 2008 campaign to press for clean energy.
"We really want Obama to be our hero, still. But we don't vote for a campaign. We voted for change, and he's giving us the same D.C. politics as usual," said Maura Cowley, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition and a former Obama campaign volunteer.