Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Gas prices continue to soar, up to a national average of $3.81 a gallon in the past week, hitting a high of $4.35 per gallon in some parts of the country.

There's increasing speculation among oil experts that prices could approach $5 a gallon, which would squeeze consumer spending, sandbag a still-vulnerable economy and further threaten President Obama's dwindling chances of a second term.

But at this point in the election cycle, there's very little, if anything, he can do about it, energy analysts say.

"There's nothing the president can do that's going to alleviate the gasoline price rise or reduce oil imports by another one million barrels per day," says Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

If this election is going to be about the economy -- and Rick Santorum is the only one who doesn't believe this -- then the price of gas may be the most important statistic in the 2012 election, next to who can win 270 electoral votes on Nov. 6.

The Federal Reserve Board said Tuesday it expects higher gas prices to boost inflation, and there is growing evidence of that. The Labor Department reported Thursday that the Producer Price Index rose 0.4 percent last month.

The Obama administration maintains the "core" inflation index, which excludes food and gas prices, is mostly tame and says food prices even declined somewhat. Try telling that one to ordinary consumers who've seen their weekly paychecks stretched to the breaking point at the checkout counter and the gas pump.

Someone is to blame for this, and voters know who that is. Nearly 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll (up from 53 percent last month). Nearly two-thirds said they don't like the way he's handling energy policies, either, particularly gas prices.

Former Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm, who raised taxes on Michigan's struggling economy when it was in the pits of recession, thinks it is "totally ridiculous" to blame the president for the rise in oil prices.

But former Republican governor John Engler, who led Michigan in better times, begs to differ. He points to a long list of political actions Obama has taken in the past three years that has brought us to this crisis.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.