Gas and Class

Ever since Barack Obama got pegged as an elitist, that’s been the running subplot of the campaign. Just look at what the debate over the gas-tax holiday has become.

Hillary Clinton’s plan to temporarily reduce the gas tax by 18.4 cents is, to put it gently, not going over well. Just about every columnist imaginable denounced it. Sam Stein searched far and wide for an expert to defend it but came up empty.

So now the argument is that the plan’s detractors just don’t understand working-class Americans. “Working people appreciate the fact that Senator Clinton understands the incredible economic strain they are facing,” Clinton spokesman Geoff Garin said during a conference call today. “… If you live in the center of the city, it seems like not that big a deal. But in rural areas where a car is center to livelihood, it makes a difference.” The Clinton camp calculates that the plan would save $70. “It may not seem like a lot for some people, but every penny counts,” Garin said. In other words, $70 might not dent your wallet much when you’re already buying a $4 caramel macchiato every day, but when you spend every day on the open road … nevermind, you wouldn’t understand.

Obama has been pushing back hard on the gas-tax holiday. He has called it a “bad idea” and a “gimmick,” citing arguments that oil companies would just raise prices again. The problem is, a thousand economic arguments fail to match the force of one populist pander. (We saw this when both candidates said they want to scrap or “renegotiate” NAFTA . Same goes for their sudden love of ethanol when they set foot in Iowa.) Obama can’t just refute Clinton’s policy; he needs to refute her populism, too.

Maybe that’s why he reassured the Today Show hosts that “both Michelle and I grew up in much less privileged circumstances than either of my two potential opponents.” Next time, he should mention driving to school uphill both ways.