President Obama’s Energy Secretary may want $8 a gallon gas but there is no doubt the President’s reelection team does not.  Just as the economy seems to be turning the corner, with 227,000 jobs added last month, rising gas prices are fueling worries the economy could be dragged down once again. A new Washington Post/ABC poll finds that Americans are deeply worried about rising energy prices.

The survey finds the president’s job approval is back into negative territory with 50% disapproving of the president compared to 46% who approve. More importantly, 57% of independents disapprove of the president.  In terms of handling the economy the president is in even worse shape.  The survey finds a solid 59% disapproving of his handling of the economy.  And on the gas prices front almost 2/3rds, 65% disapprove of his handling of the issue.  But that is not all.  For the first time, 50% of voters give the president an intensely low rating on the economy, suggesting feelings of his handling on the issue are hardening.

Democrats hoping to win back white voters, especially downscale blue-collar voters must be dismayed by how bad the president looks in the survey.  Two thirds, 66% of whites without a college degree disapprove of the president.  And this is noticeable in the general election match-ups between the president and his likely GOP rivals. For the first time since GOP voters participated in their nominating process Romney now leads Obama 49%-47% in an ABC/WashPo survey.  Even against Santorum, Obama can only manage a narrow 49%-46% lead.  Both the GOP nominees are running well over 60% with this important voting bloc.

On the deficit the president is most unpopular with independents.  A solid 70% of Independents and 90% of Republicans give the president a low mark.  Only 32%, mostly Democrats, approve of his handling of the issue.  The GOP has been banging the war drums on this issue for some time and it appears clear voters agree with them that the president has not led on this issue.

Still, not all is bad for the president in the survey.  The president receives decent marks on his handling of foreign policy.  And in good news on the economic front almost half say they are bullish about the future.  In terms of gender specific issues most voters say Democrats care more about women’s issues then the GOP.  A solid 61% of voters support mandating insurance companies cover contraceptives for free, 35% disagree.  And a majority of respondents say Democrats care more about people’s values.  On the other hand voters trust the GOP more with issues related to taxes, the economy and the deficit, though the president has more of the public’s trust than Congressional Republicans on the economy.

High gas prices have historically dragged down presidents.  Jimmy Carter was haunted by high energy prices in 1979 and H.W. Bush could not outrun a recession partly created through a spike in world oil prices in 1992.  For the president this survey serves as a cautionary note and for the GOP a campaign strategy.

The president’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline fueled GOP attacks on the president for higher energy costs.  In fact, last week the Senate rejected two amendments to a bill to fund and build the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Word leaked the president lobbied red state Democratic Senators to vote against it.  Some did. With instability in the ME fueling growing oil prices the GOP’s message on energy my really start to resonate.  No longer will the GOP just have to tout a general economic message and criticize the president.  They will have irrefutable proof to show to every American, higher and higher gas prices, that the president is hurting the economy.

The president has been doing a swing state tour to defend his energy record. He continually touts an all of the above approach and says oil production has increased under his watch.  He has George Bush and the legislatures and Governors of North and South Dakota to thank for that in reality.  But Carter and H.W. also tried to defend their records on energy and voters tuned them out.  Obama and his team can campaign as hard as they want on energy prices being a long-term problem and how much they has done to lower them (or not).  But voters will continue to be reminded of the president’s record on energy every time they fill up their gas tank, every time they want to go to a movie but cannot because they spent that extra income on higher gas prices and because their wallets are thinner than ever before.  And they will judge and vote accordingly.

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