By JACKIE CALMES and JOHN M. BRODER/NYT
That explains why, with pump prices nationwide at or approaching that record level, President Obama was at Georgetown University on Wednesday to demonstrate his concern and resolve. In a speech that repackaged his existing policies with some new incentives for renewable energy sources as well as domestic oil and nuclear power production, Mr. Obama called for slashing oil imports by one-third by 2025.
The president told about 1,000 students that the United States cannot continue to consume a quarter of the world’s oil while producing barely 2 percent of global supplies. Acknowledging that presidents going back to Richard M. Nixon had issued similar challenges, Mr. Obama nonetheless pointed to the continuing upheaval in the oil-rich Middle East to argue that the nation must end the long political bickering that has stymied progress toward energy independence.
“Now here’s the thing — we’ve been down this road before,” Mr. Obama said. “Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. I remember because I was in the middle of a presidential campaign.”
“You had all kinds of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians — they were waving their three-point-plans for $2-a-gallon gas,” he continued, singling out the Republicans’ “Drill, baby, drill” cry. “And none of it,” he added, “was really going to do anything to solve the problem.”
But Mr. Obama’s own prescriptions, while comprehensive, were neither wholly new nor, as he conceded, quick fixes to oil addiction. And while his address was largely intended to counter critics and growing calls for expanded domestic oil and gas production, Republicans in Congress were lambasting his policies even before he began speaking.
In this speech and an event on Friday to promote fuel-efficient vehicles, Mr. Obama is trying to get in front of the politically volatile issue after a time of intense focus on turmoil in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. Even his audience reflected the political calculations: He is increasingly reaching out to young and first-time voters, much as he did in 2008.
“The clock’s ticking,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. “They’ve got about 14 or 15 months until the election environment is set.” The objective for Obama officials, Mr. McInturff added, has to be “to demonstrate that they weren’t passive when this was going on, that they were trying to take action.”
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said Mr. Obama could escape most blame for now. “People are exceedingly unhappy about high gas prices,” he said, “but they’re seeing on their TV screens every night why those gas prices are going up, and in their newspapers every day.”
Still, given the power of pocketbook issues to hurt incumbents at election time, Mr. Mellman said Mr. Obama and Democratic officeholders are smart to address the issue. He predicted that other Democrats would increasingly “go after the oil companies” when they are reporting record profits, but he added, “The president does a bit less of that.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama devoted a chunk of his speech to boasting of newly approved drilling permits and countering charges from Republicans and oil industry executives that his administration had choked off domestic oil and gas production with costly new regulations and blocked exploration on millions of acres of potentially oil-rich tracts onshore and off.
Mr. Obama emphatically took ownership of some new safeguards for deepwater drilling intended to prevent repeating last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But he said that the administration had begun to reissue drilling permits where companies showed that they could safely resume operations. “So any claim that my administration is responsible for gas prices because we’ve shut down oil production — any claim like that is simply untrue,” Mr. Obama said.
The administration is not prepared to open additional public lands and waters to drilling, officials said, but will propose incentives and penalties to prod the industry to develop resources where they already have access.
The Interior Department on Tuesday reported that more than two-thirds of leases in the Gulf of Mexico and more than half of leases on federal lands were unused. Industry officials dismissed the report as a smokescreen for what they view as the administration’s stingy approach to drilling permits.
Alluding to the crisis in Japan, Mr. Obama said nuclear power must remain an important source of electricity in the United States because it does not add climate-altering carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. But, he said, “I’m determined to ensure that it’s safe.”
Most of Mr. Obama’s speech focused on his long-term strategy to save fuel by relying more on alternative and renewable energy sources. The one-third reduction in oil imports he has set as a target, which would be roughly three million to four million barrels a day at current levels of imports, corresponds roughly to the total the United States now gets from the Middle East and North Africa.
The president called for producing more electric cars, converting trucks to run on natural gas, building new refineries to brew billions of gallons of biofuels and increasing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. Congress has been debating these measures for years.
“The only way for America’s energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil,” he said.