Does the President Control Gas Prices?

By Jeff Lenard   read

Truth be told, U.S. presidents have very little control over the price per gallon.

February 03, 2021

Let’s start with a basic assumption that we can all agree upon: Politicians and their political parties don’t want to be affiliated with high gas prices.

Gas prices are the ultimate pocketbook issue that everyone talks about. Songs are written about them. You don’t see that about eggs, bread or milk. Or property taxes, for that matter. Quite simply voters hate high—or rising—gas prices. That’s probably the main reason that the federal gas tax hasn’t budged since 1993 when it was increased to 18.4 cents per gallon.

So given that every politician wants to take credit for keeping gas prices in check, or better, lowering them, and every one running against an incumbent wants to pin blame on the person in charge, it makes sense that politicians would do everything in their power to keep gas prices low. Especially presidents.

President-image.jpgSo why are they so bad at it?

Actually, it’s not that they’re bad at it. It’s that they have very little control over it. Yes, policies and legislation can certainly play a role, but gas prices are largely dictated by oil prices and oil prices are dependent upon supply and demand. Presidential control is not as simple as what those posts suggest on social media.

So, let’s look at the numbers—no emojis, words and sentences in all capital letters or a series of explanation points. In other words, the opposite of social media.

Let’s specifically focus on the spring transition to summer-blend fuel. For two decades, NACS has communicated the issues that affect prices because without an explanation, consumers tend to blame the place responsible for their pain. And convenience stores sell 80% of the gas purchased in the United States.

But it’s more complicated than that, and it begins about this time of the year. The first week of February is generally the lowest point of the season, but the spring transition generally leads to a shortage of product (see “Changing Seasons, Changing Gas Prices”) when demand begins to increase. These supply-demand imbalances usually lead to price adjustments.

Since the final implementation of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 2000, the seasonal transition to summer-blend fuel has helped gasoline prices rise significantly before they reached their peak, with increases ranging from a low of 1 cent last year (which needs some explanation) to a high of $1.13 per gallon in 2008. The average annual increase is 48.5 cents per gallon. 

So, imagine you are running for president. Wouldn’t you want to make that number lower? There have been six presidential elections since 2000. And let’s assume that whether you are president and want to get reelected or help your party to keep the presidency, you’d push every lever at your disposal to minimize price increases. But prices have actually risen even more during these presidential election years: 49.9 vs. 48.5 cents per gallon. Yes, it’s not a big increase but you’d think that it would be a big decrease if presidents controlled gas prices, right?

What about from a legacy perspective­? Can presidents say that they reduced gas prices over their term in office? Nope. Every president since 2000 has left office with gas prices higher than they took office (using EIA numbers):

  • Bill Clinton left office with gas prices 39 cents higher ($1.06 on Jan. 25, 1993; $1.47 on Jan. 22, 2001).
  • George W. Bush also left office with gas prices 39 cents higher ($1.47 on Jan. 22, 2001; $1.84 on Jan. 26, 2009).
  • Barack Obama left office with gas prices 49 cents higher ($1.84 on Jan. 26, 2009; $2.33 on Jan. 23, 2017)
  • Donald Trump was a relative success story, with prices climbing a mere 6 cents during his time in office ($2.33 on Jan. 23, 2017; $2.39 on Jan. 25, 2021).

There were some extenuating supply and demand circumstances related to the past four years. Because of the massive drop in fuel consumption related to the pandemic that has only partly come back, gasoline demand dropped 5.7% comparing President Trump’s first week in office to his last. Again, it comes down to supply and demand.

More than 40 years ago, a character on Saturday Night Live named Father Guido Sarducci, proposed a Five Minute University. His concept: In five minutes, he could teach you what the average college student retained five years after graduation. He only wanted 20 bucks for this distillation of great knowledge. His course on Economics was boiled down to 3 words: “Supply and demand.”

If you have kids in college, like I do, you can probably save a bunch of money sending them to the Five Minute University. And if you have a bunch of relatives sharing posts with crazy thoughts about gas prices, send them this. Either way, repeat these two words: supply and demand.

Oh, and if you want to see the math, here it is:

Year Date Price Peak Date Price Increase % increase
2021 Feb. 1 $2.409 TBD - - -
2020 Feb. 3 $2.455 Feb. 24* $2.466 1.1¢ 0.4%
2019 Feb. 4 $2.254 May 6 $2.897 64.3 28.5
2018 Feb. 5 $2.637 May 28 $2.962 32.5¢ 12.3
2017 Feb. 6 $2.293 April 24 $2.449 15.6¢ 6.8
2016 Feb. 1 $1.822 June 13 $2.399 57.7¢ 31.7
2015 Feb. 2 $2.068 June 15 $2.835 76.7¢ 37.1
2014 Feb. 3 $3.279 April 28 $3.713 43.4¢ 13.2
2013 Feb. 4 $3.538 Feb. 25 $3.784 24.6¢ 7.0
2012 Feb. 6 $3.482 April 2 $3.941 45.9¢ 13.2
2011 Feb. 7 $3.132 May 9 $3.965 83.3¢ 26.6
2010 Feb. 1 $2.661 May 10 $2.905 24.4¢ 9.2
2009 Feb. 2 $1.892 June 22 $2.691 79.9¢ 42.2
2008 Feb. 4 $2.978 July 21 $4.104 $1.126 37.8
2007 Feb. 5 $2.191 May 21 $3.218 $1.027 46.9
2006 Feb. 6 $2.342 May 15 $2.947 60.5¢ 25.8
2005 Feb. 7 $1.909 April 11 $2.280 37.1¢ 19.4
2004 Feb. 2 $1.616 May 24 $2.064 44.8¢ 27.7
2003 Feb. 3 $1.527 March 17 $1.728 20.1¢ 13.2
2002 Feb. 4 $1.116 April 8 $1.413 29.7¢ 26.6
2001 Feb. 5 $1.443 May 14 $1.713 27.0¢ 18.7
2000 Feb. 7 $1.325 June 19 $1.681 35.6¢ 26.9


(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update, weekly U.S. regular, all formulations) *Demand was significantly disrupted by COVID-19; the first U.S. case identified in the United States was Jan. 20.


Jeff Lenard is the NACS vice president of strategic initiatives at NACS. He did not attend the Five Minute University but is really good at math. He can be reached at jlenard@convenience.org.
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