By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
At a fundraiser last night in Los Angeles — a city synonymous with America's car culture — President Obama played pollster-in-chief, speculating publicly that one of the drivers of his slumping approval numbers are sky-high gas prices.
“My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people,” Obama acknowledged at his sixth fundraising event in two days.
And, he’s right. As we reported earlier this week, our own ABC News-Washington Post poll showed President Obama’s job approval rating dropping by 7 percentage points since January and his personal popularity at a career low.
The White House knows a combination of factors is to blame, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. Our poll found that 71 percent of Americans say that the rising price of gasoline — now averaging $4 a gallon and getting more expensive by the day — is causing them financial hardship (“serious” hardship for more than four in 10). http://abcn.ws/fRMAm8
And polling analyst Gary Langer points out that the overall view that the economy is worsening has increased by 21 points, particularly in the West, where gas prices are highest and where Obama has focused his campaign-style swing this week.
A New York Times-CBS News poll out today echoes the ABC-Post numbers. The Times notes, “Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office.” http://nyti.ms/hkRx13
At a town-hall style meeting yesterday in Reno, Nevada, where the price of fuel has risen to a three-year high, Obama pledged that he would go after gasoline price gougers, announcing a new task force to “root out any cases of fraud of manipulation” of oil markets.
“Folks are out there dealing with gas at $4 a gallon,” he told the Nevada crowd, “it’s tough.”
As ABC’s David Kerley, Jon Garcia and Sunlen Miller report, Obama said he asked the U.S. Attorney General’s office “to look into any cases of price gouging,” including investigating “the role of traders and speculators.” http://abcn.ws/hbh1yh
The president noted, “We're going to make sure that nobody's taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gains.”
And speaking of short-term political gain, Obama unleashed a line in Reno yesterday that is likely to become a familiar refrain during the presidential campaign so long as prices at the pump remain high and Republicans try to use the issue against him.
“Every time gas prices go up like this, like clockwork, suddenly politicians look around and they discover high gas prices. And they’re shocked, and they get in front of TV and they say, ‘we've got a three-point plan to bring gas down to two bucks a gallon,'” Obama said. “And then when gas prices go down, nothing ever happens, and we’re back into the same old patterns, and we don’t have a comprehensive energy strategy for the future.”
BOTTOM LINE: To be sure, the past month has been a pretty daunting for the president: Rising fuel prices, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and the wrangling over a government shutdown. The question now is whether Obama's standing will improve once these problems fade or whether opinions about his handling of these issues are starting to harden — making it more difficult for him to alter public perceptions even if things do get better.
NOTED: ABC’s Bianna Golodryga and Jim Avila took a look the myriad ways Americans are trying to cope with painfully-high gas prices on “Good Morning America” today: http://abcn.ws/hkMXff
ENSIGN OUT. “Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., announced Thursday he is resigning from his seat in Congress, where he served for 11 years,” ABC’s Ryan Creed writes. “Ensign, who is still a subject of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, said in a statement that he has done nothing wrong and will not subject his family to more public scrutiny. ‘While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly," he wrote in his prepared statement, ‘I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings. For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great.’ … In 2009, the senator admitted to an extramarital affair with the wife of his former top aide, Doug Hampton, which was soon followed by the revelations that Ensign's parents paid the Hamptons $96,000, and that the senator helped Doug Hampton find a lobbying job.” http://abcn.ws/hsJMkm
WHAT’S NEXT IN NEVADA? GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval is expected to appoint Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., for the remainder of Ensign’s term. Heller would have to stand for election in November of 2012. There would also have to be a special election to replace Heller. Ensign’s resignation is effective May 3.
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein and Amy Walter welcome former New Mexico governor and 2012 presidential candidate Gary Johnson who kicked off his campaign yesterday in New Hampshire. Also on the show: Sen. Kent Conrad joins Jonathan Karl in the latest installment of the “Subway Series.” Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
“TOP LINE” REPLAY: GERRY CONNOLLY. On yesterday’s “Top Line,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Congress needs to reexamine all of the tax cuts that were part of the deal at the end of last year’s session. He talked about the cuts for the middle-class and the wealthy in detail. “Between the two of them, that's $3.3 trillion we can't afford,” he said. “And so if we decide we're going to go with one or the other or both, somebody's going to have to figure out how to pay for it, or else they're going to have to give up their commitment to deficit reduction.” Echoing Wednesday’s guest Lynn Woolsey, Connolly attacked Paul Ryan’s budget plan, saying it “dismantles Medicare as we know it.” http://abcn.ws/g0lmZ0
TUNE INTO “THIS WEEK”: RELIGION IN AMERICA. This Easter Sunday, evangelical leader Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, sits down with Christiane Amanpour in a "This Week" exclusive. Also Pastor Tim Keller talks about his efforts to spread the gospel in the concrete canyons of New York City. And then, a roundtable discussion about the role of God in government with interfaith couple — Cokie and Steve Roberts — the Rev. Al Sharpton, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and a member of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. http://abcn.ws/eY5olO
FAITH AND 2012. “Call them ‘born again’ undecideds: Republicans exploring bids for the presidency in 2012 have ramped up their religious fervor and sharpened answers to questions about faith in an effort to court social conservative voters in key early primary states,” ABC’s Devin Dwyer reports. “As voters begin to scrutinize the lives of a wide-open field of unofficial GOP presidential contenders, several personal histories might raise red flags in some religious circles. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's transition from the Catholic Church to evangelical Protestantism in the 1990s after marrying his wife, Mary — a move he explains in his book "Courage to Stand" as an effort to "merge my faith and my church life" — could hurt his appeal among some Catholic primary voters, several Catholic political activists said. … Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich might have curried favor among Catholics with his high-profile conversion to the church two years ago, leaving his Baptist roots behind. … Trump has also been put on the spot by Christian evangelicals for his two failed marriages.” http://abcn.ws/fuGpIX
JAKE TAPPER WINS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS' ASSOCIATION AWARD. ABC News White House Correspondent Jake Tapper has won the Merriman Smith Award for excellence in presidential coverage under deadline pressure, the White House Correspondents' Association announced. It’s the second win in two consecutive years for Tapper, and according to the WHCA, he is “being honored this year for his story that revealed that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair was about to be asked by President Obama to step down. The judges said that ‘because he knew the news when the rest of the media sphere was just learning it, Tapper was able to provide details that few others could match’ in a richly detailed piece on the Web followed by a full report on television. ‘Tapper was clearly ahead of the pack and ABC's audience benefited from his reporting,’ said the judges.” http://bit.ly/hentcO
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz will also receive the Merrimam Smith Award in the print category. Peter Baker of The New York Times won the Aldo Beckman award, which recognizes a correspondent who personifies the journalistic excellence and Michael Berens of The Seattle Times won the Edgar A. Poe Award that recognizes excellence in coverage of news of national or regional significance. The awards will be officially presented at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on April 30 in Washington.
MCCAIN LANDS IN LIBYA. “U.S. Sen. John McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the American military intervention in Libya, said Friday that Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's troops are his heroes,” according to a dispatch from the Associated Press. “The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee made the remark after arriving in Benghazi, a city that has been the opposition capital in the rebel-held eastern Libya. McCain said he was in Benghazi ‘to get an on the ground assessment of the situation’ and planned to meet with the rebel National Transition Council, the de-facto government in the eastern half of the country, and members of the rebel military. … McCain's visit is the highest yet by an American official to the rebel-held east and a boost to the anti-Gadhafi forces. Details of the trip were shrouded in secrecy due to heightened security in a country fiercely divided by the two-month-old anti-Gadhafi rebellion.” http://abcn.ws/dL6916
PAWLENTY’S TROUBLES IN THE GRANITE STATE. “Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty today named several local operatives to his New Hampshire steering committee, expanding what was already an active ground game in the first-in-the-nation primary state,” Roll Call’s Steve Peoples reports. “But one of the eight steering committee members, former Nashua, N.H., Alderman Dave MacLaughlin, is a convicted felon in Massachusetts. In July 2009, MacLaughlin pleaded guilty to his third drunken driving arrest, which is a felony, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. District attorney spokesman Steve O’Connell confirmed today that MacLaughlin was sentenced to two years, with six months to serve at the Lawrence Correctional Alternative Center, a low-security locked facility locally dubbed ‘the farm.’ MacLaughlin served the full six months. O’Connell confirmed that MacLaughlin is on probation until July 15. His driver’s license was also suspended for eight years.” http://bit.ly/f5WDL4
BLACK MIGRATION AFFECTS REDISTRICTING. “As lawmakers across the nation begin the once-a-decade process of redrawing their congressional boundaries, a significant migration of blacks from cities to suburbs is having a widespread political impact,” the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reports. “According to newly released census numbers, eight of the nation’s top majority-black districts lost an average of more than 10 percent of their African American populations. That will provide an opportunity for Republican lawmakers, who control an increasing number of statehouses following last fall’s elections, to reshape districts in suburban swing areas of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and elsewhere. Dozens of seats could become easier for Republicans to hold on to, with a half-dozen or so becoming prime pickup opportunities for the party, according to political strategists. ‘The practical effect is great for the GOP,’ said Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. ‘In state after state, it’s allowing Republicans to pack more heavily Democratic close-in suburbs into urban black districts to make surrounding districts more Republican.’” http://wapo.st/gEcmor
BIRTHER BILLS DEBATED AROUND U.S. “Investigations have concluded that President Obama was, in fact, born in Hawaii in 1961, as he has always said. … But the so-called birther controversy stubbornly refuses to go away,” The New York Times’ Kirk Johnson writes. “Around the country, the issue has proved to be a sure winner for the conservative base, with bills popping up in more than a dozen state legislatures to force future presidential candidates to prove their citizenship. Those legislatures, though, have been much more reluctant to turn this issue into concrete law. Birther bills have foundered or fallen dormant in at least five states and are still being debated in more than a half-dozen others. In Arizona, where both legislative chambers passed one such bill, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed it this week, calling it ‘a bridge too far.’ But now, Oklahoma, a deeply conservative state, could be the first to put its doubts into law, through a bill that would require all candidates, from town council hopeful on up, to prove that they meet the legal requirements for office.” http://nyti.ms/f31Dx0
NO RUN FOR RON PAUL’S OTHER SON. “A third member of the Paul family isn’t headed to Congress, at least not yet,” Politico’s Jennifer Epstein notes. “Texas doctor Robert Paul, a son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and brother of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said Thursday that he isn’t planning to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, though he’d hinted last week that he might be interested. ‘I’m honored that people think I’m ready to run, but I think they want me to run because I’m related to Ron Paul,’ Robert Paul told students at the University of North Texas on Thursday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Last week, though, Paul was singing a slightly different tune, telling the Star-Telegram that he was ‘very happy as a physician’ but has ‘a lot of interest in the debt,’ and suggesting that he might run. There are already more than half a dozen Republicans who have declared that they’re running for Hutchison’s seat. Some have already raised substantial amounts of money and, unlike Paul, have held other elected offices.” http://politi.co/eQFlzM
@DonGonyea: Drive-by insult… In WaPo, Krauthammer on Trump, "the Lions have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl"
@AriFleischer: Don't worry too much about Pres polls now. If early polls were right, the 2008 campaign wld have been Giuliani vs H Clinton
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