Gas prices top out at more than $5 a gallon at a Shell station on Olympic Boulevard… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
Amid otherwise hopeful signs about the economy, the GOP presidential contenders are increasingly pointing to rising gas prices to criticize the president.
Rick Santorum has recently taken to blaming Obama's "radical environmental policies" for the increase. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, is now airing a 30-minute infomercial in Super Tuesday states outlining his strategy to return prices to $2.50 a gallon.
"We paid $1.13 on average during the four years that I was speaker. When Barack Obama became president, we paid $1.89 that week," he says in the advertisement. "That's right, President Obama has taken us from $1.89 to the most expensive gasoline on average we have ever had."
Gingrich is at best half right.
According to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report, the national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was actually $1.84 on the day Obama took the oath of office. The current national average is $3.61, which is 50 cents lower than the all-time high of $4.11.
That peak came in the summer of 2008 -- when George W. Bush was president.
The cost of gasoline soon plummeted, though, in part as a consequence of the economic collapse. On Election Day 2008, the price was $2.39, en route to a five-year low of $1.62 on New Year's Day 2009.
The long-term trend line for gas prices during Obama's term is upward, but there are a number of contributing factors.
The first significant spike began just after Obama's 100th day in office, when the average cost climbed from just over $2.00 to $2.69 in June. Prices climbed to nearly $3 the following May after the Gulf oil spill.
The peak price of the Obama term was $3.98 per gallon last May, amid unrest in Libya.
Prices dropped as low as $3.21 in late December before beginning the current uptick.
So what is driving that increase? Avery Ash, manager of regulatory affairs for AAA, said the recent spike in the cost of gas is actually in part a byproduct of the improving economy domestically and overseas.
"It's a bit of a double-edge sword. With an improving economy you would expect more demand for crude," he said.
"At the same time you've got increasing unrest in Iran. There hasn't been any supply disruption thus far, but it's the uncertainty in the market that's applying the upward pressure."
All this comes, Avery points out, as Americans are actually consuming less fuel -- about 6% less since the same point last year -- which ordinarily would push prices down.
The politics of gas prices was clear in Obama's energy speech in Florida today. In the key swing state, Obama accused his potential Republican foes of rooting for bad news, citing a news account they were "licking their chops" as prices spiked.
"They're already dusting off their three-point plan for $2 gas. And I'll save you the suspense: Step one is to drill and step two is to drill, and then step three is to keep drilling," the president said.