A presidential assassin stalks the land. Politicians of both parties know this, but more Democrats understand it than Republicans. Who is the killer? It’s neither a person nor a thing, but a highly charged economic phenomenon. The president-killer is high gasoline prices. It has aborted the tenure of six presidents or their would-be successors, and it now threatens a seventh.
1. Richard Nixon was the first “gassed” president. In 1973, Americans were cruising on 25¢-a-gallon gas. The price wasn’t much-changed from the late 1940s because the world oil-price was set at $3/barrel. Fat, dumb and happy, we were driving land-yachts that burned about two gallons per mile. Well, not quite, but Oldsmobile sold a high-performance model called the Toronado that got just 8 mpg. My huge Cadillac wasn’t much better. 15 mpg was considered an “economy car.” Gas was cheap. Who cared?
Our real oil problems actually started in 1948 when the UN carved Israel out of Palestine. 50 million Arabs tried to reverse the decision, but being unable to agree on what color an orange is, they failed. Israel got established, and in 1967 their Moshe Dayan-led forces defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a remarkable six-day blitzkrieg. They also annexed territory captured during the war.
Annexations usually don’t go down well with losing nations, so Egypt’s Anwar Sadat spent the next six years seething and re-arming (with Russia’s help). Mr. Sadat kept threatening war, but after while everyone stopped listening.
In October 1973, Egypt and Syria (backed by seven other Arab states) achieved complete surprise in the Yom Kippur attacks on Israel. Nearly overwhelmed by a huge force of Syrian and Egyptian armor, Israel was thrown on the defensive. But its effective armed forces eventually repelled the invaders and carried the war deep into Egyptian and Syrian territory. A UN Security Council resolution stopped hostilities just in time to prevent annihilation of the Egyptian Third Army.
All this was entertaining for Americans, but the fun stopped when the Organization of Arab Petroleum-exporting Countries (OAPEC) – i.e., Arab members of OPEC, plus Syria and Egypt – got nasty and declared an oil-embargo on nations that supported Israel in the war. Declared in October 1973, the embargo’s effects were not felt in the USA until early ’74 when OPEC quadrupled the world price of oil. We had shortages and waited on line for gas costing 50¢ a gallon – double the price of a few months earlier. We tried rationing – letting cars with odd-numbered license plates get gas on odd-numbered days. When the shortages ended on April 1 (because the embargo ended) we were heartily sick of gas lines.
We were sick of Richard Nixon, too. Pop historians say the Watergate scandal – i.e., the cover-up of a White House-approved burglary of Democratic National Headquarters – brought him down. But barely noted, in retrospect, is the fact that the scandal simmered for two years without much public or media attention. Only after the price of gas soared, with accompanying shortages, did an aroused public seem to notice Watergate. Suddenly, it all got very hot.
Sensing the public mood, Congressional Democrats drafted Articles of Impeachment and held hearings. Over two years after the actual burglary, but just five months after the Arab embargo ended, Mr. Nixon was out of office. Watergate might have been the “fatal bullet,” but the real “assassin” was expensive gas. Americans had no patience with it, and Mr. Nixon got the blame (and the boot).
2. Jimmy Carter was elected because he was neither Richard Nixon nor Gerald Ford. Mr. Ford wasn’t a bad guy, but liberals were furious with him for “pardoning” Mr. Nixon – depriving them of the pleasure of hounding the hated ex-president through the courts for the next twenty years. Voters wouldn’t reward Mr. Ford with a full term, choosing the unknown Mr. Carter instead.
With energy a paramount concern during his term, Mr. Carter made a great show of turning down the White House thermostat and wearing a sweater in televised appearances. He cultivated his Everyman image, and tried his best to disarm the country. As a U. S. Naval Academy graduate (class of 1946), he evidently thought he knew best what our defensive posture should be.
At that time the price and distribution of gasoline were still federally controlled, so the price hovered around 50¢ a gallon through the ‘70s. But the Mideast remained in turmoil. In 1979 Ayatollah Khoumeni returned from exile and overthrew the Shah of Iran. OPEC raised oil to $30 a barrel, and gas rose above $1.00 for the first time. We had more shortages and gas lines. (I recall begging the owner of our local station for a gallon of gas so I could mow my grass.) As the year ended, the Ayatollah made hostages of 52 diplomats and staff from the American Embassy in Iran. The Russkies invaded Afghanistan. Things were not going well for ole Jimmy.
By 1980, Mr. Reagan’s campaign was rolling. His can-do optimism and message of a strong, renewed America attracted voters. Mr. Carter’s allies tried to paint Mr. Reagan as “a B-movie actor just reading lines” or an “amiable dunce” being led around by his handlers. But the public wouldn’t buy it. To reverse his weak sister image Mr. Carter tried deeds of derring-do, like running a hostage rescue mission from the Oval Office. The poorly planned and inadequately supplied attempt failed spectacularly, resulting in the disgusting desecration of dead American soldiers’ bodies by mobs in Teheran. Mr. Carter was toast, and Mr. Reagan won 44 states and 489 electoral votes. Gas had taken another presidential victim.
Mr. Reagan had promised to bring gasoline prices down, so he immediately proceeded with his plan by “decontrolling” gasoline distribution and governmental price-setting. I distinctly recall the price of gas increasing by 30¢ a gallon, to $1.35, on the very day decontrol was announced. Media wiseacres fell over laughing at the “failure” of Mr. Reagan’s decontrol.
But then, curiously, the price of gas began to slide down. Disbelieving reporters and Democrats (but I repeat myself) thought it couldn’t be happening, but it was. By the mid-80s gas was down to 76¢ a gallon, and the Reagan boom was in full swing. Happy days were here again.
3. George Bush (41) inherited decontrolled oil and an improving international situation. On his watch the Berlin Wall was knocked down and the Soviet Union collapsed. Was it Mr. Bush’s “kinder and gentler” image that tempted Saddam Hussein to occupy Kuwait in 1990? I don’t know, but he did it. The price of gas went up 15% at the pump on the first day of the invasion. We had gas, but it kept getting more expensive.
Saddam miscalculated HW’s mettle, however. The president formed a military coalition that easily retook Kuwait. But retreating Iraqis torched many Kuwaiti oil wells, and it took months to extinguish them. This disrupted world markets, since Kuwait had been pumping a million barrels a day during peacetime. The world oil price spiked to $35 a barrel, and Americans had $1.40-a-gallon gas. Mr. Bush gained popularity for winning the short Gulf War, but he didn’t use his political “capital” to energize the political coalition that had elected him.
This negligence caused the “Reagan Democrats,” who had voted for Mr. Bush in 1988, to align with Ross Perot in 1992. Young colleagues of mine – who were in kindergarten when Mr. Carter had 15% inflation and 20% interest rates – talked about how we needed “a change.” High gas prices had wounded Mr. Bush enough to make him vulnerable to a more energetic message, and Bill Clinton slipped in the back door with 43% of the popular vote.
4. Bill Clinton and Al Gore reaped the political benefits of stable oil prices through the 1990s. In 1998 the world oil price dropped below $10 a barrel because of over-production. Gas was down to 70¢ a gallon, but world markets soon reduced production. By mid-2000, in the midst of Mr. Gore’s presidential campaign, oil soared past $30 a barrel and gas was above $1.60 a gallon – the highest prices Americans had ever paid in contemporary dollars. (The 1999 world price was actually above $100/barrel in constant 2020 dollars.)
Mr. Clinton did his best to help Mr. Gore by releasing oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserves. (Sound familiar?) This pushed the price down a few cents per gallon, but the effect was only temporary. Mr. Gore lost the 2000 election by a whisker. When the Supreme Court stopped “selective recounts” in Florida, Mr. Bush won the state by 515 votes, and the electoral vote, 271-266. The gas-price assassin wasn’t as clearly involved in Mr. Gore’s case, but those high prices just before the election certainly hurt him – maybe just enough to cost him the game.
5. George W. Bush (43) presided over the highest oil prices in history, to that time, due to the 2001 terrorist attacks and our war in Iraq. Things gradually settled down, but in the fall of 2005, when hurricanes knocked out some of our oil refining capacity in the Gulf of Mexico, the price of gas jumped a dollar a gallon at the pump in just a few days. Shocked Americans were paying $3.50 a gallon in some locales. International tensions pushed world oil-prices over $75 a barrel, and there was wild talk of $100-a-barrel oil and $4 or $5 gas.
Fortunately for Mr. Bush, these radical prices happened during his second term, so re-election was not a factor. But expensive gas certainly hurt his approval ratings, and (arguably) cost Republicans control of the Congress in 2006. Analysts scratched their heads over Mr. Bush’s low numbers, while the economy seemed “good,” but they rarely mentioned gasoline. This is an oversight. Gasoline is a factor in presidential popularity. It can also turn an election against a would-be follower of a president whose terms have ended. The high price of gasoline certainly did not help Republican candidate John McCain in 2008 when he ran against Barack Obama.
6. Barack Obama didn’t seem to care where the prices of oil and gasoline went during his terms. He repeatedly issued executive orders which impacted oil drilling offshore and on federal lands – driving the price close to $4 a gallon by 2012. Despite what looked like Mr. Obama’s intention to make gasoline and heating oil expensive, new retrieval of oil from shale formations drove the price of gasoline down to just over $2 a gallon by the end of Mr. Obama’s second term.
Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 for reasons that transcended the prices of oil and gasoline. Gas prices were reasonable, but voters didn’t trust Mrs. Clinton on gasoline and other issues of her questionable honesty. For his part, Mr. Trump made good on his promises to do as much to help the American people as he could. Notably, he threw open the doors of oil production, brought gas prices down to $2 a gallon, and made the country oil-independent for the first time in our history. Gasoline prices did not defeat him in 2020. But the COVID pandemic, the “Russia-collusion” hoax, and corrupted elections in key states were enough to bring him down. Even members of his own party worked to defeat him.
7. Joe Biden is the latest president trying to prove that the price of gasoline isn’t really something to be concerned about. In just a year-and-a-half he has more than doubled the price at the pump to the highest levels in our history by curtailing new drilling, cancelling the Keystone Pipeline, and undoing Mr. Trump’s “energy independence” construct. He blames Russia’s war on Ukraine for the high gas-prices, and makes noises about bringing those prices down, but it is just for show.
Even the much-ballyhooed release of a several million barrels of oil from our Strategic Oil Reserve was a sham meant to fool the voters. Reporters have revealed that Mr. Biden sold that oil to European companies which, in turn, sold it to China. None of it helped American consumers. Mr. Biden’s spokes-people continue to claim that they “know nothing” about this, while assuring the public that inflation – including the doubled price of gasoline – is “only temporary.”
Will Mr. Biden and his party pay a political price for expensive gas? We’ll get a hint in the mid-term elections, just four months away. The price of gasoline is a fundamental indicator of financial health for people in the political and economic center of the country. Wealthy people don’t worry about gas prices, and many poor people – who might not own cars – also don’t worry much about gas. But for millions of ordinary citizens who live paycheck to paycheck, suddenly paying $300 a month for fuel, instead of $150, directly affects their quality of life. When gas seems unreasonably expensive they worry about the future. By time-honored convention, the president takes the heat for that collective worry.
It is not yet clear if that heat will turn the Congress “red” in 2022. Maybe, but maybe not. Voters notoriously tell pollsters the Congress “stinks,” but that their guy is OK. (They vote only on him.) With the media baying about “abortion” and the out-of-control Supreme Court, the game-pieces have been tossed in the air. Maybe the price of gas will do it. But “experts” are often wrong about elections. Will they be right this time?
Mr. Biden’s high gas prices could hurt the next Democrat presidential candidate, whether it’s himself or a stand-in. Mr. Gore’s loss in 2000, during fairly good economic times, showed that high gas prices might have hurt him – as if the assassin aimed at Mr. Clinton but hit him instead. 50 years into the career of the gas-price assassin, we still can’t predict how his latest “hit” will play out. So far, he has done a lot of damage.