(Sept. 21) - When it comes to President Bush's approval rating - the number
that measures his political health - one factor seems more powerful than any
Oval Office address or legislative initiative.
In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, Bush's rating rose
to 44%, his highest in a year. Average gas prices, which peaked at more than
$3 a gallon in August, had dropped under $2.50, the lowest since March.
A renewed focus on terrorism contributed to Bush's turnaround, analysts say.
"When they put the terror issue out there, they tend to get political
points," says sociologist Robb Willer of the University of California, Berkeley.
Gas prices may be "a proxy for larger developments in the political
economy," Henwood says. For instance, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, which
drove up fuel costs, also eroded Bush's support.
The ratings of Bush's three immediate predecessors weren't closely tied to
gas prices, Henwood found. Volatile prices and a supply crunch did contribute
to President Jimmy Carter's political travails.
It's the price of a gallon of gas.
Statisticians who have compared changes in gas prices and Bush's ratings
through his presidency have found a steady relationship: As gas prices rise, his
ratings fall. As gas prices fall, his ratings rise.
For some Americans, analysts speculate, gas prices provide a shorthand
reading of the general state of the economy. Even though prices at the pump are
largely outside the president's control, he gets credit when they fall - and
blame when they rise.
"Gas prices are a price everybody knows because it hangs on the street in
big letters," says Stuart Thiel, an economist at DePaul University in Chicago
who has been tracking the trend for several years.
A statistical analysis by Doug Henwood, editor of the liberal newsletter
Left Business Observer, found that an "uncanny" 78% of the movement in Bush's
ratings could be correlated with changes in gas prices. Based on trends in
crude oil prices, Henwood predicted last Thursday that it "wouldn't be surprising
to see his approval numbers rise into the mid-40s."
For Bush, too, prices have been volatile, and his background as an oilman
may be a factor affecting public attitudes. In the USA TODAY poll, two in five
said the administration has deliberately manipulated gas prices to decline
before the fall elections.
Routine market forces are likely to deliver more good news to Bush, says Tom
Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. Absent an international crisis,
he predicts gas prices will drop an additional 10 to 20 cents a gallon by