March 11, 2011 -- President Obama today defended his record on energy policy amid rising oil prices and Republican criticism that the president has done little to encourage domestic production and energy independence.
"We've been having this conversation for nearly four decades now. Every few years, gas prices go up, politicians pull out the same old political playbook, and then nothing changes. And when prices go back down, we slip back into a trance. And then when prices go up, suddenly we're shocked," the president said in his news conference. "I think the American people are tired of that. I think they're tired of talk. We've got to work together... to finally secure America's energy future."
Oil prices have surged in recent weeks because of turmoil in the Middle East, specifically Libya, where dictator Moammar Gadhafi is embroiled in what many observers describe as a civil war. The price hikes come ahead of the peak summer driving season and have created friction between Democrats and Republicans.
Obama said today he is prepared to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve "should the situation demand," and that his administration is also looking into the possible manipulation of markets by oil traders.
"We are confident about our ability to fill any potential gaps in supply," he said.
When it comes to Libya, Obama pressed Gadhafi to heed the voices of many of his people and step down. He said the United States will continue to apply pressure on Libya and will seek talks with opposition forces, and all options are on the table.
"I believe that Gadhafi's on the wrong side of history. I believe that the Libyan people are anxious for freedom and the removal of somebody who has suppressed them for decades now," the president said. "We are going to be in contact with the opposition as well as in consultation with the international community to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Gadhafi being removed from power."
A new Gallup survey released this week found that 49 percent of Americans predict gas prices will rise to $4 or more a gallon this year and 27 percent believe prices will surpass the $5 mark. The American Automobile Association notes that prices have gone up, on average, 10 cents in the past week and 41 cents in the past month.
House Republicans, deriding what they say is the president's lack of leadership on this front, Thursday unveiled their own plan to expand U.S. energy production and end Obama administration policies that, they contend, are harmful to prices and job growth.
Republicans argue that the president's policies are hindering oil and gas exploration in the United States, which, in turn, expand reliance on foreign oil.
"Just as with jobs, the American people recognize that Washington has been a big part of the problem when it comes to the price of energy," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday.
"If you watch what this administration has done for the last two years in their regulatory process, they've stopped drilling in the Gulf, they've slowed the number of leases coming out of the government, and they're imposing these EPA regulations on American businesses that are going to sharply increase the cost of energy in America."
Obama today dismissed the rhetoric from Republicans as political maneuvering, saying that while it makes for a good sound bite, it doesn't reflect reality. He added that the answer to the nation's energy security question is not just drilling new wells, because oil from those will not reach the market for some time, but rather focusing on clean-energy investment and technology.
Obama also chided Republicans for not cooperating on the budget proposal to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. Both the Senate Democrats' and Republicans' plans failed this week and the president said it's unlikely the two sides will reach a consensus by next week's deadline, which would require another two- to three-week extension.
Republicans "are not going to get a 100 percent of what they want. The Democrats have put forth spending cuts, many of them pretty painful, that give Republicans already half of what they were seeking, because they're the right thing to do," Obama said. "Both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise. ... It shouldn't be that complicated."
The president said the short-term extensions that have fueled the government so far are "irresponsible" and defy "common sense," and he pushed Republicans not to sneak their political and ideological agendas into budget proposals.
"Our long-term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom," he said. It's "caused primarily by escalating health-care costs that we see in Medicare and Medicaid, that's putting huge pressure on the overall budget."
"That's why I think it's going to be important for us to have a conversation, after we get the short-term budget done, about how do we really tackle the problem in a comprehensive way."
More Calls to Tap Reserves
Obama today urged both Republicans and Democrats to come together on a comprehensive energy plan "that will focus on production and conservation."
"We have got to make our economy more efficient and energy independent in the long term," he said.
The president has faced criticism not just from the GOP but from within his own party as well.
Some Democrats, such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, have voiced frustration with the administration's treatment of the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Obama administration opened up offshore oil production but later revised its policies in the wake of the BP oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico last year.
Landrieu and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have introduced a bill that would extend the time lost on oil leases because of the administration's drilling moratorium in the Gulf.
Democrats want Obama to release oil from the reserve to alleviate the pressure on oil prices, which have soared because of the turmoil in the Middle East and uncertainty in the economic markets.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill Thursday that would deploy at least 30 million barrels of light crude oil into the marketplace from the reserve, beginning within the next six months.
"Whether higher prices or disrupted supplies happen from an act of God or an act of Gadhafi, the United States should respond by deploying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in order to protect us against slipping back into a recession once again," Markey said.
The reserve includes 727 million barrels of oil that are kept in underground salt domes in case of an emergency or supply disruption.
The main idea behind keeping crude oil in the reserve, which was created in the 1970s, is that it can be tapped in the case of a direct disruption to the U.S. oil supply, not to bring down prices.
Amid congressional pressure, President George W. Bush approved the Department of Energy's request to halt shipments to the reserve in 2008, the last time the country experienced an unexpected sudden spike in oil prices, but he didn't tap into the reserve itself.
ABC News' Matt Jaffe contributed to this report.