To a very real extent, the business of political strategizing, which I think is my main occupation, is predicated on the notion that strategy is complicated and a lot needs to be written about it. To this end, I have written about two million words on politics over the last four years, or the equivalent of about nine versions of Ulysses by James Joyce. While there is certainly a lot to write about on American politics, it is also true that many of the factors that make the largest difference in American politics are actually both quite simply and fairly immutable from an activist perspective. For example, the price of gasoline has long been connected to Presidential approval ratings, and that was as true under Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton as it is under Bush II.
The price of gas directly affects the lives of most Americans in a way few, if any, other national trends can. If gas costs more relative to median real income, then the economic situation of most Americans becomes immediately worse. If gas costs less relative to median real income, then the economic situation of most Americans becomes immediately better. Our way of life is utterly marinated in oil far more than any other natural resource. It impacts not only the cost of travel, but also the cost of housing, consumer goods, wages, health care, electricity, and even education. Hell, it even affects the price of coffee, which might be the natural resource with the second largest impact on the history of the world over the last five hundred years. And, in the end, there is almost nothing that short term activism can do to change the price of gasoline.
The Bush administration Wednesday said it would release oil from a special federal reserve to help refiners hurt by Hurricane Katrina. The announcement relieved some pressure in oil markets, but gasoline prices kept soaring Thursday, and spot shortages developed.
The decision to let companies request oil from the government's 700-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve came after Katrina knocked out 95% of crude oil production in the gulf. More than a dozen gulf refineries are closed or operating below capacity, and oil rigs, pipelines and ports are down.
Short-term, Democrats look poised to take a substantial trifecta in D.C. and most states in 2008. Long-term, however, gas prices will never return to the levels of the late 1990's that helped fuel sky-high approval ratings for President Clinton. Further, conservatives still have a strangehold on the oil industry worldwide (Hugo Chavez as an obvious exception). Our move off the petroleum economy is still slow, and will even take decades under an extremely aggressive Apollo style renewable energy program. So, in short, there is no reason to expect that future administrations will have approval ratings dramatically better than those currently enjoyed by both Bush and Congress. Ending the war will help, and providing millions of people with health care will help, too. However, gas prices will still remain high, making approval ratings in the 40s and 50s about the best anyone can do even under the most favorable conditions until at least 2020.
The days of super popular administrations, ala the fourth, fifth and sixth years of Reagan, and like the final five years of Clinton, are probably over for the foreseeable future. As a country, if not as a world, we will be heading toward a regression, or at least a plateau, in terms of our personal well-being. And this isn't going to make people very happy. The only way it will get better long term is if the progressive movement is able to take power and institute real changes to our energy policy that will take us off the petroleum economy, or if a crypto-fascist movement takes charge in America and starts conducting several Iraq style wars in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East to even more overtly and explicitly to capture a larger percentage of the world's oil reserves. There really isn't a middle ground solution that will stave off a major regression by the second quarter of the current century, as cap and trade and symbolic gestures toward renewable energy investment just won't do the trick. Further, even capturing a larger percentage of the world's oil reserves through direct military force not only won't stop global warming, but will actually accelerate it, which is set to cause a major regression in human civilization in about two or three decades. A not insignificant percentage of the world's population, possibly higher than World War Two, could die through a combination of peak oil and continued global warming. When energy and food production both begin to decline, we will really be in for a literal world of hurt.
It may not be as bad as all that, but things are not going to be getting much better for the world in the short term. Approval ratings for all politicians will remain pretty low as a result. If a Democrat manages to get re-elected to a second term as President in 2012, it will be a major accomplishment. More than any other resource, our world runs on oil. By releasing large amounts of it into our atmosphere, and by eventually using up half of existing reserves, human civilization could change more dramatically than at any other period in history. And that will cause a political realignment unto itself.