For a few days now, Republicans have criticized President Obama over rising gas prices. House Speaker John Boehner blames the problem on Obama’s now-lifted moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico last summer and the termination of drilling leases in national parks. Others have accused the president of gleefully sitting back and watching gas prices, which have shot up amid unrest in North Africa and the Middle East — the easier to force Americans into embracing electric cars and high-speed rail.
To get in front of the conversation, on Friday the president held a news conference.
“We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now,” said Obama, pointing out that rising gas prices – and partisan handwringing over the issue – are far from a new phenomenon. “I think the American people are tired of talk.”
While he expressed openness to tapping more American oil resources if the situation calls for it, the president again pushed for moving to clean energy. “As long as our economy depends on foreign oil, we’ll always be subject to price spikes,” he said, arguing that we can’t drill our way out of the problem since the United States only controls two percent of the world’s oil.
As for the short-term, Obama acknowledged that Americans are feeling the cost of rising gas prices acutely – and some more so than others. “A lot of folks who are having the toughest time, who are either unemployed or have low-wage jobs, they’re the ones that are most severely affected because they’re using a higher portion of their income just to fill up the gas tank,” he said.
The global community, Obama said, has committed to filling gaps in oil supply, to make up for Middle East political turmoil. He’s also asked Attorney General Eric Holder to monitor the industry for price gouging, to ensure that people aren’t getting ripped off.
The press conference dipped into a broad range of subjects, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan (Obama assured Prime Minister Kan that the U.S. will provide any assistance needed), and the president’s careful consideration of involving the U.S. military in Libya (it’s on the table, but he’s still thinking about it).
And at several points Obama revisited subjects pertinent to “folks who are unemployed or have low-wage jobs” — groups he hasn’t mentioned much lately as he focuses on winning the future.
Housing was discussed as a major economic concern. “We’ve got a lot of folks who, because housing prices have fallen so steeply, are still hurting. Some of them are threatened with foreclosure, maybe because they lost a job,” he said. He pointed to his Home Affordable Modification (HAMP) program, which offers incentives for lenders to modify home loans, but admitted that the going has been painfully slow.
While the administration predicted that three to four million homeowners would be able to modify their loans under the plan, so far only about 500,000 have. “It’s going to take some time for the housing market to improve,” he said. “But we’re continuing to take a range of steps to try to strengthen that process of recovery.”
Obama mentions his housing efforts just as congressional Republicans have placed them in the firing line. This week the GOP-controlled House voted to end his home refinancing program aimed at borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth. Next week HAMP goes on the chopping block. The president has threatened a veto if the Senate passes the killing of either measure.
On Congress’ inability to agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government through this fiscal year, Obama stood up for education programs for low-income students.
“There are going to be certain things that House Republicans want that I will not accept,” he said of Pell Grants and Head Start. “I think it’s very important to understand that our long-term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom,” he said, calling the early childhood education program and Pell Grants critical to the nation’s long-term success.
Obama’s style is usually to take the best deal he thinks he can get, so even though he’s drawn his line at foreclosure assistance, Head Start and Pell Grants now…you never know if more capitulation is around the corner. But after he’s already proposed disappointing cuts to LIHEAP funding and Community Development Block Grants, on this he just may stick to his word.