Two numbers have dominated White House discussions about the president's domestic agenda in recent days: rising gas prices and the president's falling approval ratings. While much of Washington has been trying to forecast the political impact of the Terri Schiavo case and the struggle to overhaul Social Security, Bush's aides maintain there is a pocketbook explanation for the downward slide in the president's polls. "Schiavo didn't drop the numbers," says RNC senior adviser Matthew Dowd, who was Bush's top strategist in last year's campaign. "It's gas prices primarily." Two polls last week gave Bush just 41 percent approval on his handling of the economy and an overall approval rating of 48 percent. Whether their concern is political or economic, Bush's advisers are looking for a way out. "They are very concerned," says one administration official.
While his aides concede there is little they can do to shift prices quickly, Bush has been grappling with the issue in recent internal discussions, including his cabinet meeting last week. Now White House officials tell NEWSWEEK that Bush will become increasingly vocal in public about fuel costs, seizing on the public concern to push ahead with his long-stalled energy bill, as well as delivering speeches on energy issues, including new technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and cleaner coal. "If the Congress had acted three years ago, some of the policies we put forward could have had an impact today," says one senior Bush aide. The Department of Energy predicted last week that gas prices will reach a peak monthly average of $2.35 per gallon in May, around the time the legislative battles should be in full swing. "With the price of gasoline where it is, that ought to be enough this time to cause people to get moving on the bill," Bush told reporters on Air Force One as he returned from Rome last week.
Bush's aides like to say the problem is one of supply and demand: faced with rapidly growing economies in Asia, they say, suppliers cannot keep pace in the United States, not least because drilling is not allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But that view isn't entirely shared by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who will travel to the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, toward the end of this month. The Saudis believe there is plenty of supply in the world--not least their own--and blame the high gas prices in the United States on bottlenecks inside the country, especially the complex state-by-state regulations of gasoline blends and a lack of new refineries. (Bush's aides say the problems of refinery capacity will be addressed in the new energy bill.)
In the meantime, the president will look like he's addressing the problem simply by talking to the Saudi leader. "And come September," says one official planning for the meeting, "prices will inevitably drop when the driving season is over."