Obama's popularity could take a hit if gas prices continue to spike

Prices for regular unleaded gasoline are up 12 cents on average in the past three weeks, according to the latest Lundbergh survey. They're poised to go higher still this spring, likely breaking the $4 barrier for regular unleaded and holding steady through the summer months, according to many analysts.

The spike is a result of several factors, including uncertainty in the oil-rich Middle East , and some U.S. refineries being taken off-line for maintenance in advance of spring blending changes.

But regardless of the cause, one person takes an inordinate share of the blame anytime there is a spike in prices -- the president of the United States.

Larry Saboto, political scientist at the University of Virginia, points to a chart that shows a remarkable correlation between a president's unpopularity and high gasoline prices dating back to the Carter administration.

"It's not a perfect correlation. It takes a while for high prices to cause a president to bleed popularity points. It doesn't happen right away, so it obviously depends on how high the gas prices go and how long they stay there," he said.

The day President Obama was inaugurated, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.84. Today that average is $3.52, a spike of just over 90 percent.

The highest average price per gallon was in 2008 during the Bush administration, when it reached $3.81.

One administration critic, Rory Cooper of the Heritage Foundation, suggests the present spike is unique. "President Obama over the last three years has done everything in his power to cripple the increase in domestic supply and production. Clearly,world markets are taking a look at that and keeping prices high in response to American energy policy."

The White House maintains that domestic oil production has increased under the Obama adminstration. And, that its energy policy is a sound response to increased world demand and tightened inventories.

"When it comes to reducing our dependence on foreign oil, increasing domestic production of oil and gas," said Jay Carney in a White House briefing on Tuesday, "increasing our investments in clean energy... it's really an all-of-the-above approach."

Still, in an election year, the presidential popularity/gasoline price correlation is likely to present a rich environment for whomever claims the Republican nomination.

Among virtually all Republican candidates, as well as the Republican Congress, there has been a steady drumbeat of accusations that the administration has lagged in granting new oil exploration leases and increasing refining capacity, as well as stalled approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Once in his term during a previous spike in gasoline prices last February, Obama opened the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase market supply and lower prices. But such tactics carry risk -- potentially depleting two reserves -- that of the Petroleum stockpile itself , and the reserve of goodwill the president holds with a key, core constituency, environmentalists.