With oil prices spiking left and right, it's become a blame game in Washington as politicians try to capitalize on people's struggles in order to discredit their opponents. Just as a side note, it's interesting that that is the first reaction of politicians, rather than a feeling that they should do something to fix the problem.
The pervasive idea is that this is all Obama's fault, that if he would just let us drill domestically, or allow the Keystone Pipeline to be built, we would be swimming in $2/gallon gas right now. Of course, that's overly simplified, and in many ways downright wrong.
First of all, the President, no matter who they are, has very little to do with the price of oil. They can sign all the drilling permits they want, open up sensitive ecosystems to be sucked dry by our drills, and disrupt marine wildlife in entire swathes of ocean, and it won't help the price of domestic gas. Why? Because all of those permits and drills and rigs are privately owned by companies who are going to refine their crude and then sell the oil on the global market. That's right, all of the oil that America produces domestically goes out into the world to be sold for huge profit by the oil companies that produce it. The US has to go into the market and compete with other nation's for that oil, which is part of the reason the price has gone up.
Here's a list of reason's the oil prices are going up, and why they are so volatile at all.
1) Demand. As the world becomes more industrialized, more countries start buying up oil, which puts a strain on the supply being produced globally. In particular, India and China are both booming and starting to siphon huge amounts of oil out of the markets, which raises the price on what's left.
2) Profit. There's a huge amount of money being made by a lot of people, and they are very hesitant to let that go, even if it would mean higher sales because of lower prices. Companies like Shell, BP, and Exxon are raking in the cash because of these high oil prices, and they probably don't want to see a drop in the costs anytime soon.
3) Speculation. More than anything else, this is what drives the cost of oil. This is due to investors on Wall Street and in the oil markets betting on the price of oil, and on oil futures. Whenever a man sneezes on an oil rig, they hike the price a few cents. When something catastrophic happens, like this crazy story about a pipeline blowing up in Saudi Arabia, the price spikes crazily even if nothing actually happened. Why? Because it's the job of these investors to predict what will happen to the price of oil and get it to move before there's a change in the inflow/outflow of barrels.
4) Unrest. With Syria engaged in a civil war, and Iran threatening atomic weapons, it's no wonder there is concern about the oil fields in the Middle East. While OPEC countries are still churning out the black gold to the tune of millions of barrels daily, the increasing volatility in the region has sent speculators scrambling to push the prices up.
In terms of presidential influence, Obama could sign more drilling permits, he could open more lands to drilling and speculation, and he could promote domestic energy policies. But as I've said, doing that probably won't do much other than line the pockets of the oil companies even further. The only way to bring the costs down permanently is to decrease our dependence on oil all together, which is why we need alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient cars. Those are solutions that Obama is already pushing. I think he's going in the right direction, and is looking at the next 10-20 + years and seeing that this is the only solution that makes sense.