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As prices rise, which president faced the worst at the gas pump?

March 12, 2012|By Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer
  • A woman pumps gasoline into her car in Los Angeles on a day in which prices continued to rise around most of the nation.
A woman pumps gasoline into her car in Los Angeles on a day in which prices… (Frederic J. Bown / AFP / Getty…)

Some respite.

After a day or so in which prices dropped by a negligible amount,  the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is again on the rise, up 0.9 cents overnight and up 3.4 cents since last week to $3.801.

In California, the price rise appeared to be leveling off, but few analysts seemed willing to place a bet on that. Overnight, California’s average for a gallon of regular rose 0.1 cent to $4.359.

Other states were also feeling the pain, with Illinois last week joining Hawaii, California and Alaska as the only states averaging more than $4 a gallon.

The usual suspects can be rounded up: refinery maintenance closures; the annual shift from cheaper-to-make winter blends of gasoline to the summer blends that use more expensive components; speculators, hedge funds and others driving up the cost of gasoline and oil futures; refiners helping make their petroleum products one of the nation’s most successful exports; and recent fears of a conflict with Iran.

Meanwhile, President Obama catches much of the current heat for price. But he might find some solace in the fact that he would be the first president since Kennedy if he isn’t hit with the visual pain of a larger number on the nation’s gas pumps.

That’s how far back one has to go (in a non-inflation adjusted sense) to find a president whose term ended without an increase in prices at the gas pumps, and that was probably because his term in office was cut short.

Here is a list of presidents, their terms in office, and highest national average gas price while they were in office (from the Energy Department but not adjusted for inflation) and the reason for the increase:

Barack Obama, 2009 - present, so far $3.965; Arab spring
George W. Bush, 2001-2009, $4.114, 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
William J. Clinton, 1993-2001, $1.681, Osama bin Laden terrorist attacks
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993, $1.345, first U.S. war with Iraq
Ronald  W. Reagan, 1981-1989, $1.380, trading begins in oil and gasoline futures
James E. Carter Jr., 1977-1981, $0.860, a popular bumper sticker of the time was  "Jimmy Carter, kiss my gas"
Gerald R. Ford Jr.,  1974-1977, $0.620
Richard M. Nixon,  1969-1974, $0.390, first OPEC oil embargo, U.S. creates Strategic Petroleum Reserve
Lyndon B. Johnson,  1963-1969, $0.350, Arab nations try first oil embargo against countries supporting Israel; it fails.
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963, $0.310
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961, $0.310
Harry S. Truman, 1945-1953, $0.290
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945, $0.210

Using the Energy Department’s prices adjusted to reflect March 2012 dollars, it’s a different result, but George W. Bush is still on top in the national monthly average (through the end of 2011):

George W. Bush: $4.27
Barack Obama: $3.97
Ronald W. Reagan: $3.65
Jimmy Carter: $3.57
George H.W. Bush: $2.30
George J. Clinton: $2.19

For Phil Flynn, an energy analyst with PFGBest Researchone analyst, it basically means that presidents are abject failures at reducing gasoline prices. "At the end of the day," he said, "when people are angry about gasoline prices, they are going to blame the guy who’s in office."

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