Politics at the pump

July 27, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Except for those families with members in the armed forces, average Americans probably haven't been affected by the war in Iraq anywhere more negatively and obviously than they are today at the gas pump.

Not since a quarter of a century ago, when soaring prices, gas shortages and frustratingly long lines besieged the hapless President Jimmy Carter, has there been such a squeeze on Americans' pocketbooks in the midst of the summer vacation season.

Then, Mr. Carter did his best to cope with his energy crisis by calling on citizens to tighten their belts, stay close to home, reject automakers' gas-guzzlers and, when cold weather came, turn down their thermostats and don sweaters.

Today, with pump prices soaring again, Detroit and foreign car manufacturers continue to roll SUVs and other conspicuous consumers of gas onto the market. As they do, Americans keep clogging the highways with them in apparent disregard of the cost at the pump.

Beyond that, in this war in which sacrifice seems confined to those who fight it and their families, President Bush continues to ask little of average Americans except to keep going about their business as usual. In the absence of the long lines for gas that plagued Mr. Carter, Americans seem willing to comply.

What is the reason for this docile attitude toward high gas prices, especially when public opinion polls indicate Americans are losing confidence in the Bush leadership?

Part of it, no doubt, is that the economy is in recovery and inflation is in check. Mr. Bush hasn't had to contend with the economic woes that beleaguered Mr. Carter, to the point that he finally fled to Camp David to reassess the state of the nation's health, and of its spirit.

That long presidential soul-searching, during which Mr. Carter invited a parade of kibitzers to help him dig the country out of the dumps, cast him in the public eye as directionless and even incompetent. Adding to his dilemma was the captivity of American hostages in Tehran.

But Mr. Bush has an immensely more serious monkey on his back in the war he started in Iraq and its chaotic aftermath. Yet because he still finds shelter as a self-proclaimed war president who fights terrorists on foreign shores so they don't have to be fought here, he is spared most of the wrath that engulfed Mr. Carter.

There may be no better, if simplistic, explanation of how the American people treated Mr. Carter then and how they look at Mr. Bush now than the personal styles of the two men and the vibes they projected. Mr. Carter was seen as the bland country boy from Georgia in over his head in the White House. Mr. Bush is the confident, swaggering Texan who has all the answers, especially when he's the one who gets to pose the questions to suit his purposes.

Much is made, and not always in derogation, of this president's machismo, reassuring Americans shaken by the horrible experience and memories of the terrorist attacks of 2001 that they have a tough guy at the helm bent on vengeance and retribution.

A good part of this exercise has been his ability to convince a pliant public of the false view that the enemy he attacked in Iraq more than two years ago was the same one that caused the unforgettable havoc of 9/11.

So, as those cylinders on the nation's gas pumps spin higher and higher prices for the stuff that drives the guzzlers, uncomplaining Americans keep digging deep, or routinely insert their credit cards at the pump in what may seem a less painful way to pay the tribute exacted by the Middle East oil producers.

And through it all, the president keeps telling us not to worry, and to invest our Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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