Obama aims for a push while in New Hampshire

Discusses strategies over gas prices and enjoys increase in New Hampshire support

NASHUA — President Obama, in his second visit in three months to the battleground state of New Hampshire, fiercely defended his energy policies Thursday against Republican attacks, offering a preview of his strategy to quell voter anger over rising gas prices.

Holding a color-coded chart to illustrate his points, Obama said his administration has decreased dependence on foreign oil and stepped up domestic oil production in recent months. Rising gas prices are a function of global markets, particularly instability in Iran, he said, which is best countered with expanding sustainable energy sources and ending $4 billion in subsidies annually given to oil and gas companies.

“Let’s put every single member of Congress on record,” Obama told a crowd at Nashua Community College. “You can stand with the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people. You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that’s been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean-energy future.”

Obama’s remarks drew immediate rebukes from Republicans, including Mitt Romney, who said in Fargo N.D., “He’s going to talk about how he’s responsible for the increasing production of oil in this country, oil and gas in this country. Is he responsible for the increase? No, I didn’t think so.”

Gas prices have steadily ticked up in 2012 — an anomaly because gas prices typically drop in winter months with lower demand as cold weather keeps drivers indoors. Retail gasoline prices rose Thursday to a national average of $3.74 per gallon, with analysts predicting that prices will top $4 by springtime, perhaps exceeding the highest-ever price of $4.11 during the summer of 2008.

Republicans have seized on gas prices as a potentially vulnerable pocketbook issue for the president. High gas prices during the 2008 presidential campaign played, for a time, to the benefit of Obama’s Republican challengers and inspired Sarah Palin’s now-famous campaign cry of “drill, baby, drill.”

Obama’s choice of New Hampshire as a backdrop for his retort to Republican criticism comes as his fortunes here are rebounding. WMUR Granite State Poll results released last month showed Obama’s approval ratings at their highest levels since July 2010, with 51 percent of New Hampshire adults saying they approve of the job he is doing, 43 percent disapproving, and six percent neutral. The figures are higher than his national ratings and higher than George W. Bush’s New Hampshire approval rating at the same time in 2004, according to the poll.

That’s a marked turnaround from only a short time ago. After winning the state in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote, Obama and his fellow Democrats saw an abrupt change in fortune here. In the 2010 midterm elections, voters driven by Tea Party fervor put Republicans in control of the state Senate and House. Republicans picked up a US Senate seat and both of New Hampshire’s seats in the US House.

When Obama visited New Hampshire in November of last year, his numbers reflected the weak popularity of his party, with a Bloomberg News poll finding that only 40 percent of New Hampshire residents approved of Obama’s job performance.

Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Obama’s rosier outlook in New Hampshire in recent months owed to improved economic conditions and increased consumer confidence.

“New Hampshire weathered the recession a lot better than the rest of the country, but there still was a great deal of anxiety about the economy,” Scala said. “And now New Hampshire voters are looking around and seeing good news at home and better news across the country.”

Seeking to capitalize on the momentum, Obama was in buoyant campaign mode Thursday. Against a backdrop that announced, “An America Built to Last,” Obama rallied the crowd with attacks on what he called Republican efforts to capitalize on high gas prices for political gain.

“I know this is hard to believe but some politicians are seeing higher gas prices as a political opportunity,” he said. “You’re shocked, I know.”

He added, “Only in politics do people respond to bad news with such enthusiasm.”

Obama’s energy policy remarks followed a similar speech in Miami last week. At Thursday’s event, Obama repeated the punchline he’d used last week, saying, “We’re going to be hearing a lot about how people have these magic three-point plans to make sure you’re only paying two-dollar-a-gallon gas. … You know what the essence of their plan is going to be, which is: Step one, drill. Step two. drill. Step three, keep drilling.”

He continued, “There are no quick fixes or silver bullets. If somebody tells you there are, they’re not telling you the truth.”

Fellow Democrats have been pushing Obama to tap into the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to curb rising gas prices.