How much can the president affect gas prices?

When gas prices were approaching $3.00/gallon, Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush was in the pocket of Big Oil. Yet now as gas prices hover around $4.00/gallon just a few years later, Democrats have largely fallen silent, along with their allies in the mainstream media.

The bias of the media and Democrats isn’t exactly anything new, but an important question to ask is this: How much blame should a president bear for the price of gasoline?

EPA Ethanol

Reason’s A. Barton Hinkle notes that it often comes down to two things — ideology and economics:

Before being appointed, Obama’s first Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, said, “We have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Yet when gas prices rise, none of this seems to merit even a mention.

If you think that difference in treatment arises from partisan or ideological bias, you’re right. Last year, The Washington Post noted that “Democrats in 2006 were more inclined to blame Bush for high gas prices than Republicans are to blame Obama now.” And the difference is more than minor: “73 percent of Democrats thought Bush could do something to reduce gas prices, while only 33 percent (of Democrats) think Obama could — a 40-point shift. By contrast, 47 percent of Republicans thought Bush could help bring gas prices down, compared with to the 65 percent who think Obama could — only an 18-point shift.”

In other words, if you ask someone whether the president can affect gasoline prices, Democrats are far more likely to change their answer depending on who occupies the Oval Office. And as everyone knows, liberal Democrats outnumber conservative Republicans in the media by a ratio of something like 8 gajillion to one.

Setting aside partisan politics, the truth is that the president really can’t do much to affect prices at the pump. More drilling — and good tire inflation — might make a marginal difference. Higher fuel-economy standards can help, too, although they create a boomerang effect (a lower marginal cost per mile encourages more driving).

On the whole, though, such policies don’t matter much when — as Obama has pointed out — the number of cars in China has tripled in just five years. The effect on global oil prices from soaring demand in China, India, and other emerging economies will overwhelm just about anything the U.S. can do at home.