Bush's popularity hits all-time low as rise in oil prices fuels anger of American drivers

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The Independent US

As his approval ratings hit an all-time low, President George Bush moved to try to stem the rise in US oil prices, which has turned into a political headache for himself and his administration.

In a bid to boost supplies on the market ahead of the summer "driving season", Mr Bush is temporarily halting shipments to the national strategic petroleum reserve. He is also taking steps to relax environmental standards on certain fuels, and launching an inquiry into possible overcharging by the big oil companies, whose record earnings and massive pay increases to executives have only added to public anger.

"Our addiction to oil is a matter of national security concern," the President said in a speech to the Renewable Fuels Association, which advocates alternative energy sources like ethanol. The country imported 60 per cent of its oil, he noted, compared with 25 per cent in the mid-1980s.

And yet, petrol prices in the US remain low by European standards. The US national average of roughly $3 (£1.68) a gallon is far below the equivalent $6.42 in the UK (based on a pump price of 95p per litre). But unfortunately for Mr Bush, cheap petrol underpins America's car-dependent way of life. Sustained high prices thus have a direct impact on living standards - and on the popularity of those in power at the time.

The "gas crisis" has helped consign Mr Bush's approval rating to a new low of 32 per cent, according to the latest CNN poll, plumbing depths reached by Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter, and briefly by Bush's father in the months before his 1992 defeat. But few presidents have tumbled as far as Mr Bush, whose popularity hit almost 90 per cent after the 11 September attacks, and stood at 70 per cent when the US invaded Iraq in March 2003. Since then, it has been downhill all the way.

"When presidents hit 30 per cent, watch out," said William Schneider, CNN's political analyst. "Carter lost, Bush's father lost, and everyone knows what happened to Richard Nixon."

Almost a year and a half into his second term, President Bush has fought his last election, and is thus beyond the direct reach of voters. The fear in the White House and the Republican high command is that the public will vent its dislike on the next-best target: the Republican Party at November's mid-term elections.

Loss of control by the Republicans of either the Senate or the House of Representatives - let alone both - would not only kill off what legislative clout remains to this enfeebled White House, but also expose it to serious, hostile scrutiny by congressional committees, on Iraq and other issues.

Petrol prices are just the latest blow to the Bush Presidency, battered as it is by the Iraq crisis, its botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the row over domestic wiretapping by security services without warrants.

But nothing, not even Katrina, has hit home like higher petrol prices. In another poll this week, 69 per cent of Americans said rising petrol prices had "caused hardship" for their families - compared with just 28 per cent saying they have made no difference.

But, as Mr Bush himself acknowledged, yesterday's measures will make little lasting difference - even though wholesale petrol prices dropped in New York by 8 cents a gallon immediately after the announcement.

As with Iraq, he is at the mercy of events beyond his control. In the case of oil, these are soaring global demand, the dispute with Iran and political instability in Nigeria, another major producer. However, the public, and the Democratic opposition, has little time for such arguments.

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