The recent spike in oil prices and unemployment is dramatically changing this presidential campaign -- virtually overnight. The near $20 jump in oil to $140 a barrel, the unexpected half-point increase in the jobless rate to 5.5 percent (the biggest monthly increase in twenty years), and the resulting 400-point plunge in stocks has created a new campaign issue right before our eyes.
Public worry number one is now oil, jobs, and the economy, with the inflationary woes of the U.S. dollar right underneath. The candidate who can connect with these issues will win in November. But so far neither Obama nor McCain are dealing with the new political reality.
In fact, it’s all about oil right now. The price has doubled over the past year while the economy has slumped.
But here’s an eye opener. Recent polling data from Gallup show the percentage of voters blaming oil companies for skyrocketing gasoline prices has dropped from 34 percent to 20 percent over the past year. At the same time, support for more drilling in U.S. coastal and wilderness areas has increased to 57 percent from 41 percent.
And the candidates remain blind to these shifts.
Obama continues to lambaste oil companies while congressional Democrats push for cap-and-trade. They’re missing the point, big time. The public wants more energy and more fuel to cut high prices and spur economic growth. But the costly cap-and-trade plan would produce less fuel and less growth. It would only raise gas pump prices while mounting a Gosplan-type taxing, spending, and regulating program that would be the moral equivalent of Hillarycare on nationalized medicine.
Sen. McCain has an opening here. Yet he, like Obama, would have voted for cap-and-trade, which went down to defeat in last week’s Senate vote. And while Mr. McCain favors some off-shore production and has been strong on nuclear development, he is against drilling in ANWR Alaska.
Then there’s the oil nobody is talking about. The Bakken fields beneath North Dakota, Montana, and Canada hold an estimated 400 billion barrels of oil. In comparison, Saudi Arabia’s biggest field, Gahawar, has an estimated 55 billion barrels, while ANWR has an estimated 10.4 billion barrels.
Hat tip to Mark Perry at the Carpe Diem blog site for these figures. Perry also is reporting a Bureau of Land Management study showing 279 million acres under federal management where oil and gas could potentially be extracted. But more than half of this is totally off limits. Off-shore, where another 86 billion barrels lie in wait, is also restricted. Then there’s liquefied natural gas, oil shale, and the various coal-to-liquid carbon-capture and sequestration technologies that would be priced out of the market by cap-and-trade.
The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we can’t produce. We’re still the world’s third-largest oil producer, but we could be the Saudi Arabia of oil if our companies were free to drill. Oil CEOs like Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil and David O’Reilly of Chevron keep saying this. But politicians aren’t heeding their message.
Israeli saber-rattling against Iran could have accounted for some of last week’s huge oil spike. And the unemployment story may not be as bad as the May jobs report suggests. An unexpected inflow of teenagers probably bloated the jobless figure by a couple tenths of 1 percent. And economist Jerry Bowyer points out that an unprecedented hike in the minimum wage may be derailing students looking for summer work. However, in a sign of future job improvement, the civilian labor force grew by nearly 600,000, meaning that more people looking for work could signal recovery. Weekly jobless claims are near 350,000, not the 500,000 of past recessions. Overall, at 5.5 percent, unemployment continues to be historically low.
But the economy is still in a slump, not a boom. And the fact remains that Americans are very worried about the economic outlook. This could be a recession election. And right now voter economic anxieties are all about oil, even more than the sub-prime housing credit problem.
Sen. McCain has a great pro-growth plan to slash corporate tax rates, a move that would be a strong tonic for jobs and wages. But he must bolster that plan with a new emphasis on deregulated energy markets that can produce a total portfolio of conventional and non-conventional energy, including major new drilling. He should couple that with a strong-dollar message to curb both energy and non-energy inflation, which is shrinking consumer paychecks and damaging corporate profits.
More oil, more jobs, better wages, and low inflation. That’s a winning GOP message this fall. But what if Sen. Obama gets there first? It’s unlikely, but not out of the question. Either way, voters will move to the candidate who connects with their worries. Right now those worries are up for grabs.