WASHINGTON -- Every sign at every gasoline station from Connecticut to California is screaming President Bush's political fate.
The more and longer prices inch over $2 a gallon and stay there, the more he faces trouble, no matter how much White House effort and muscle he uses to fight his way out of this problem. Should prices drop, and electricity shortages disappear, of course, the credit will be his.
"Energy is big," said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. "Nothing irritates people more than paying a lot at the pumps, or for their electric bills, except maybe losing their jobs."
Bush is especially vulnerable, Sabato said, because he and Vice President Dick Cheney are closely aligned in the public mind with big oil, even though neither man has been deeply involved with a major oil company.
Bush was in the business before owning a baseball team and entering politics in 1994. Cheney headed Dallas-based Halliburton, an energy services firm, until joining the 2000 presidential ticket.
"People do feel they tend to favor big oil at the expense of others, and the public is probably less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on energy," said Larry Hugick, vice president of Princeton Survey Research, which has polled on the issue.
Bush is well aware of the perception. Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force has quietly met with more than 100 interest groups to talk energy, and Monday, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao invited labor leaders to the White House for a session that briefly included Cheney.
The meeting, following similar sessions with other groups that have shown little affinity for this administration's policies, seemed a clear signal the White House wants help, or at least muted voices, as energy begins to dominate Washington's agenda.
Bush knows that not only are the political stakes enormous, but energy is a force that is tough to control.
Just ask Jimmy Carter. From almost the day he was inaugurated in 1977, Carter made energy conservation and efficiency a top priority.
He became identified with the issue, and it helped sweep him right out of office. When gasoline lines formed and prices swelled in 1979, many voters saw it as strong evidence Carter was inept.
For a more recent scare of how energy saps political strength, Bush needs to only look over to California, where Gov. Gray Davis is struggling with a mess he had virtually no role in creating.
"Gray Davis is dead politically," said Roberta A. Johnson, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
Not only is he at the helm of a state where consumers pay $2 and more per gallon for gasoline and endure intermittent electrical blackouts, "he's seen as much too involved in raising money from utility and energy interests," Johnson said.
She could just as easily be talking about Bush, so it's clear why the White House is concerned.
Bush's Gallup poll approval rating dropped 9 percentage points to 53 percent over the past two weeks. More ominously, Gallup found people about split over whether they are satisfied with the direction of the country.
While energy is hardly the sole reason for Bush's popularity plunge, it clearly has emerged as a leading villain -- energy has climbed to the No. 2 priority people most wanted Bush to deal with, just behind improving education.
If people around the country experience blackouts or gasoline shortages this summer, they won't be very satisfied and Bush, like Davis, will find he's to blame, regardless of how many trips and speeches he makes.
If California's problems spread, said Mark DeCamillo, director of that state's Field Poll, "It just doesn't play well for Bush."
It's not only Bush who risks being overwhelmed by an energy crisis. Most Republican congressional leaders come from oil-producing states, and they make it clear they favor what is expected to be the centerpiece of the Bush energy proposal -- more drilling and exploration.
"You could drill right off my front porch in Pascagoula, Mississippi," offered Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
"Nobody's happy with the price of gasoline," added House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas, "but as Merle Haggard would say, that is the way love goes."
Such talk gives Democrats, particularly those from oil-consuming areas, something to pounce on, a particularly useful tactic should the perceived energy problem erupt into a full-fledged crisis.
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