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Chu backpedals on call for higher gas prices

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Nov. 17, 2011: Energy Secretary Steven Chu testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.Reuters

What a difference a week makes for President Obama, as rising gas prices put more and more pressure on his administration. 

Last Tuesday at a news conference, the president insisted to Fox News that it was fallacy to think his team was in favor of higher gas prices to wean Americans off fossil fuels. 

"You think the president of the United States going into reelection wants gas prices to go up higher?" the president asked. "Is that -- is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense?" 

Fast forward to this week, when the president's Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledged Tuesday at a Senate hearing that he indeed told the Wall Street Journal in September 2008 that getting U.S. prices up to higher, European-level gas prices would help move Americans to use more renewables. 

But with rising gas prices sinking the president's approval rating in some new national polls, Chu says he has had a change of heart. 

"Are you saying that you no longer share the view that we need to figure out how to boost gasoline prices in America?" Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Chu. 

"I no longer share that view," the energy secretary said. 

"But you did then, but you don't now?" pressed Lee. 

Chu noted that he had made the comments before he was in government, just a couple of months before Obama won election and Chu was nominated to his current post. 

"When I became secretary of energy I represented the U.S. government and I think that right now in this economic -- very slow return -- that we need to have, these prices well could affect the comeback of our economy and we're very worried about that," said Chu. "And so, of course, we don't want the price of gasoline to go up. We want it to go down." 

White House spokesman Jay Carney downplayed the shift and said the president did not tell Chu to clarify. He stressed that since Chu made the comments before he was in the administration, Republicans have taken them out of context to suggest it is administration policy. 

"There has been an attempt -- a partisan, largely partisan attempt -- to try to take comments like that and pretend those are policy when in fact the policy reflects the contrary," Carney said. 

Although the White House continues to accuse Republican presidential candidates of politicizing the spike in gas prices -- with Newt Gingrich, for example, pushing a plan that he claims will get gas down to $2.50 a gallon -- Democrats are not acknowledging the president himself pounced on high gas prices as a candidate in 2008. 

"Exxon's making $40 billion a year, and we're paying $3.50 for gas," Obama said in one TV ad. "I'm Barack Obama. I don't take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won't let them block change anymore." 

What has changed since then is gas has steadily climbed to now reach a national average of $3.81, more than 30 cents above where they were when candidate Obama taped that commercial. 

While the president has repeatedly defended his record by saying there's "no silver bullet" to fix this problem, the public apparently does not agree, which is fueling the political pressure on the White House. 

Besides showing that the president's approval rating has suddenly slid to a low of 41 percent, a new CBS News/New York Times poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe gas prices are something a president can do a lot about. 

White House aides, however, can point to positive numbers in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. 

That poll gives the president a 12-point edge over congressional Republicans, 44 percent to 32 percent, on the question of who people trust more to "make the right decisions to help bring down the price of gasoline." Sixteen percent said neither and 7 percent said they did not know or refused to answer. 

Like Chu, however, Carney on Tuesday also had to backpedal from a previous statement. On Monday, the press secretary said Gingrich was "lying" by telling voters he could lower gas prices so easily. 

"I said yesterday that anybody who said that would be a liar," Carney said Tuesday. "And I shouldn't have gone into motivations. I should have said anybody who says that doesn't know what he's talking about." 

Gingrich aides fired back in a prepared statement that this is proof he's gotten "in the president's head" on this issue, as the presidential candidate continued his assault on the White House energy policy

"He believes in a Fantasy Land where companies like Solyndra are somehow magically going to solve things," Gingrich said on Fox News. "His answers in two speeches recently was algae. You know, drilling doesn't work, but algae does?" 

Senior administration officials fired back that the White House thinks it's sad for the nation that Republicans are mocking renewable fuels, with one of the officials saying it's a modern version of the Flat Earth Society.