Newsbreak: An unusual, and certainly avoidable, one-vehicle crash has occurred at our favorite intersection of the news media, policy and politics.
President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bandwagon has somehow collided head-on with itself. Eyewitnesses from coast-to-coast are shaking their heads in disbelief.
After all, things seemed to be going as smoothly as a president can expect when fighting two wars and steering America through a perilous economic recovery obstacle course.
Last month, Obama's approval rating finally rose to the midpoint for the first time in almost a year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Americans giving him 50 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval. But this month, Obama's numbers flip-flopped, as the new Post-ABC poll put his approval/disapproval at 46-50 percent.
Pundits are sagely opining it's all about rising gas prices. Yes, but that's not the full explanation. Obama's energy-policy words collided head on with his latest energy deed. And millions of Americans who glance even occasionally at the intersection of the news media, policy and politics figure they've seen it with their own eyes.
For months, experts were predicting a new round of soaring gas prices. And Obama and his strategists seemed determined to show that he was going all-out to do everything presidentially possible to hold the line -- even while knowing there is a lot presidents cannot control. In his State of the Union address and every energy speech, Obama said he was pursuing an "all-of-the-above" energy policy.
But Obama's "all-of -the-above" policy collided head-on with his decision to reject a federal permit for construction of a U.S.-Canadian pipeline that would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coast. He explained it was impossible for the government to determine the environmental impact of the pipeline in time to meet the original Feb. 21 deadline arbitrarily set by Congress.
Meanwhile, Republicans -- especially those running for president -- began blasting Obama's pipeline decision as a betrayal of America's energy imperatives. "A no-brainer," said Mitt Romney, adding: "When someone says we want to bring in a pipeline that's going to create tens of thousands of jobs to bring oil from Canada, how in the world could you say no? This is a president who does not understand energy. He is the problem. He is not the solution."
It devolved into one of those Washington food fights. On March 7, Obama said at a truck factory in Mount Holly, N.C.: "If we are going to control our energy future, then we've got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We've got to develop every source of American energy..."
But behind the scenes, even on the day he said that, Obama was calling Senate Democrats to stop Republicans from a move to eliminate the requirement that this international project needed a federal permit. And the same day Obama was speaking in North Carolina, his party prevailed and blocked the effort to speed the pipeline construction.
Republicans attacked Obama for seeking to please environmentalists at motorists' expense. As prices push beyond $4 a gallon, no wonder voters are angry. Never mind that the bottom-line truth is the pipeline would have zero impact on our gas prices today and for months to come.
Obama can be masterful when it comes to using words to gain political advantage. But he chose not to use any words that could have avoided this collision.
Obama could have said his "all-of-the-above" policy means yes, we need that pipeline -- but we must also safeguard our environment to ensure America never faces a land-based disaster of the magnitude of the Gulf oil spill. But he never went that far. Even though Nebraska's Republican governor, Dave Heineman, blocked the initial pipeline route through his state -- because of environmental concerns -- and worked out a compromise. Even now, there is no finalized new pipeline route awaiting impact studies. Both are points White House strategists failed to forcefully make.
Obama should have said we wouldn't be stampeded by a flawed, artificial congressional deadline. We will build the pipeline -- but we will do it responsibly.
Martin Schram analyzes politics for Scripps Howard News Service. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.