Power Play

Amid a Week of Setbacks, Obama Tries Again to Squelch Energy Uproar

Chris Stirewalt, Mike Emanuel and Tom Dupree discuss gas wars.


Amid a Week of Setbacks, Obama Tries Again to Squelch Energy Uproar

“26 percent”

-- President Obama’s job-approval rating on his handling of gasoline prices, according to the latest FOX News poll.

Presidential foreign trips seldom go as poorly as Barack Obama’s visit this week to South Korea for meetings on nuclear arms control.

He did not throw up in the lap of one of his hosts or get a shoe chucked at him by a reporter, but Obama did commit a historic blunder. America’s commander-in-chief forgot himself in front of a live microphone and got caught speaking out of school with the outgoing president of Russia. Obama’s message: he would have more “flexibility” to negotiate defense deals with Russia after he was beyond the grasp of voters.

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“This is my last election,” was instantly added to the list of all-time presidential flub lines. Obama chided reporters for paying so much attention to the moment, but the damage was done in an instant. The endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s diminutive henchman, Dmitry Medvedev, was not what Obama was hoping to bring home from Seoul.

Foreign policy wonks can debate the merits of talking behind the backs of American voters, but there’s no doubt that you don’t want to get caught doing it, especially amid international concerns that former KGB officer Putin rigged his latest election, while Russia stymies Western efforts to control Iran.

While he was away, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on Obama’s most significant accomplishment in office: legislation creating a new middle-class health insurance entitlement program. Unable to gain enough support in his own party for sufficient tax increases to finance the still-pending program outright, Obama turned to the plan of his 2008 rival, Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton plan, ironically first devised by some Republicans in opposition to the health plan she and her husband put forward nearly two decades ago, relies on the constitutionally dubious idea of forcing all Americans to purchase private insurance or be enrolled in an existing government program.

In three days of withering questioning from the four conservative justices and swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy, the concept of forcing people to buy insurance is increasingly looking like a legal loser. It’s an I-told-you-so moment for the left, since many liberals warned Obama against the centrist idea of mandatory insurance. Liberals never liked the idea of the Obama Democrats creating a private insurance cartel. The left’s frustration deepened as Obama’s solicitor general stammered and hacked his way through the arguments.

There’s no way to know how the court will decide the case this summer – justices could let the whole law stand, overturn the whole thing or just rip out the mandate, the beating heart of the plan. Democrats seem to be mostly focused on the controversial shooting of an African American youth which occurred last month in suburban Orlando, but took time out this week to despair over the 2010 health law and second guess the administration’s handling of it.

The received wisdom in Washington now says that whatever happens to the health law will be good for the president in the fall, evidence that the aggressive campaign and White House communications teams are having success with their spin. But the truth is that much peril lies ahead for Obama on the law, especially since the arguments this week will do nothing to reduce the size of the huge majority of American voters who already believe that the law is unconstitutional.

The best thing Obama has had going for his re-election bid has been the grinding down of likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney by an ugly primary process. Swing state and national polls show a significant toll has been taken by many months of attack ads and obsessive, negative coverage by the establishment press. But the news on that front was not good this week either.

The Obama campaign’s best hope of keeping Romney under fire from all sides was that his primary pursuers could together block Romney from winning the nomination outright and force a bloody convention-floor fight. Political reporters endlessly fueled speculation on this front, some out of political bias and others out of the larger bias of wanting so badly to cover a goat roping of that magnitude.

But Romney’s Republican rivals this week began to fade from view. Romney looks increasingly likely to win every contest until at least May and the calls from conservatives are growing to end the divisive process and unite behind the frontrunner. The sooner Romney can stop playing whack-a-mole with the remaining Not-Romneys, the sooner he can start trying to make up his deficit with the moderate, suburban voters who will decide the election.

But given all of the problems besetting the president upon his return from overseas, what is Obama’s top political priority? It’s the same as it was before he left town and the same as it’s been for more than a month: energy prices.

Obama will make his first appearance since returning stateside today to call for the passage of a doomed Senate bill that would increase taxes on oil companies and use the money to subsidize green-energy initiatives. The legislation won’t receive all 53 Democratic votes, let alone the 60 votes needed to pass.

But with gasoline costs still soaring, Obama is desperate to gain some momentum for his energy policy. Obama has been engaged in a months-long public education process aimed at shifting the blame for skyrocketing energy costs to Republicans, who he says have prevented him from succeeding with his plan to use higher energy taxes to lower energy costs.

The president decries “subsidies,” but he is talking about the same loopholes most American corporations enjoy, even those favored by Democrats, like General Electric and those in the entertainment industry. There is little evidence, though, that Obama’s effort to reapportion blame by targeting the oil industry and its Republican allies is working.

Obama and his European allies, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (both of whom are facing their own political challenges), are preparing to dump oil onto world markets from their nations’ reserves, in previous times kept for “strategic” emergencies. But the relief from a Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy election-year oil glut will be only temporary, so it would be best to wait until closer to the actual voting to start pumping.

In the meantime, Obama will have to keep up his argument that limitations on domestic energy production to protect the climate and higher taxes on energy producers are worthwhile. Already this week the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency this week delivered what many see as a deathblow to America’s coal industry .

The president is unwilling to relent on his mission to wean Americans from fossil fuels, but also understands the size of the liability his energy policy could play in the fall.

If that means denouncing the members of his own party who oppose his plan or wasting weeks of swing-state campaigning defending an unpopular policy while Republicans were in a fratricidal frenzy, he’ll do it.

The debate rages over what will define the 2012 election. Unemployment? Health care? Foreign policy? Birth control? Obama knows what the answer is for him: energy prices.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Obama has his own out-of-touchness issue. In 2008, it worked in a sense because he was a spectacular person that came out of nowhere and it added to his charisma. That is all over now. That hope and change stuff is done, and now looking at him as a president who has a record.

He has this kind of detachment and coolness, which I think also edges onto the side of being cold. So I'm not sure it's a competition of who is the fuzzier and cuddlier candidate that the other side will win. It's a tie on that and in the end it will be on policies.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.