WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama turned on Saturday from national elation over the killing of America’s most wanted foe to face the threat that high gasoline prices and unemployment pose to his own 2012 re-election hopes.
Six days after announcing U.S. special forces had killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the president offered a sober message in his weekly radio address that he understood many Americans were still struggling through hard times.
“Although our economy hasn’t been the focus of the news this week, not a day goes by that I’m not focused on your jobs, your hopes and your dreams,” he said.
Public anger over rising prices at the pump has put pressure on Obama to look for ways to provide quick relief for consumers as he seeks re-election in 2012.
Obama’s approval rating jumped sharply after the news of the deadly raid against bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. But the 2012 election will also be fought on issues much closer to home, like the cost of gasoline and a sense of job security.
Average gasoline prices are almost $4 a gallon across the country, up by more than one dollar compared with a year ago, and are a potentially serious risk to his political future.
Republican opponents of Democrat Obama say he could be vulnerable in next year’s ballot if gasoline prices push above $5 a gallon, with the economy still fragile.
As a reminder, U.S. unemployment rose last month to 9.0 percent from 8.8 percent in March, data released on Friday showed, although more new jobs were created than had been expected.
Analysts say high gasoline prices sap household spending power and may deter companies from hiring additional workers.
Obama, who taped his message at an Indiana auto-parts plant he visited on Friday to promote energy policies he says will help wean Americans off expensive foreign oil, said the mounting price of gasoline represented a heavy burden.
“A lot of folks are still looking for work. And many folks who do have jobs are finding that their paychecks aren’t keeping up with the rising costs for everything from tuition to groceries to gas,” he said. “In fact, in a lot of places across the country, like Indiana, gas is reaching all-time highs.”
His remarks underline White House concern that the public remains anxious about the economy, and that any bounce in public opinion over bin Laden’s death could be fleeting.
The president’s approval rating gained sharply since Sunday’s news that bin Laden was dead. A Thursday Gallup poll gave him a 6-point bump to 52 percent, while a CBS/New York Times survey saw his numbers up 11 percentage points to 57 percent compared with two weeks ago.
However, the CBS/New York Times poll showed more than half of the respondents disapproved of his handling of the economy.
In his radio address, Obama emphasized that he has a plan to deal with oil prices.
“Over the long term, the only way we can avoid being held hostage to the ups and downs of oil prices is if we reduce our dependence on oil. That means investing in clean, alternative sources of energy,” he said.
Editing by Vicki Allen