WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged world oil producers to lift crude output as he sought to deflect public anger over high gasoline prices that is hurting his popularity among voters.
U.S. fuel prices have become a hot button political issue after pushing toward $4 a gallon. Gasoline futures hit 33-month highs on Tuesday.
The rising prices at the pump are fueling voter discontent with Obama’s leadership, opinion polls show, and could hurt his reelection chances in 2012.
“They need to increase supplies,” Obama told CBS affiliate WTKR in Hampton Roads, Virginia. “And obviously there’s been some disruptions because of Libya. But we think that they can make it up and we’re pushing them to do so.”
Calling on producers to pump more oil during times of high crude prices was a strategy also used by the administrations of former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Obama, until now, had focused on trying to reduce oil demand, but he made clear in his comments on Tuesday that increasing output was also part of the solution.
“It’s the first time the Obama administration has done this, but it’s not because they have figured out any new strategy on trying to fight high oil prices,” said Tim Evans, energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York.
“It’s because it’s the first time they’ve seen a 30 percent jump in oil prices over a few months.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the president sent a letter to Congress urging it to end tax breaks for oil and gas companies.
Ramping up the pressure on the companies, the Obama administration’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, told reporters he saw some “disturbing” things in the energy markets.
He said this justified the formation of a task force unveiled last week to probe possible fraud and manipulation of gasoline prices.
Obama’s top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, also sought on Tuesday to reassure markets that the administration was taking the issue of high prices seriously.
He reinforced the White House’s message, saying that oil companies are getting an easy ride from U.S. taxpayers.
Obama, in the letter to congressional leaders, hailed what he called bipartisan support for ending the tax breaks.
But Republicans, who feel rising gas prices could help them defeat Obama in the 2012 election, said the approach would “raise taxes and increase the price at the pump.”
This opposition contradicted signs of openness on Monday from the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner [ID:nN25223852]. Boehner was sharply critical of Obama’s policies after the letter was released.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Timothy Gardner, and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Laura MacInnis