LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Okay, here we go again. NPR's Scott Horsley reports that when President Obama visited Virginia, Nevada and California this week, he put special emphasis on the cost of gasoline.
SCOTT HORSLEY: It didn't take any prompting from the audience to get Mr. Obama started on the subject of gas prices. He brought it up himself, again and again, as if to say no matter how far removed official Washington may seem, he understands the challenges that American drivers are facing.
President BARACK OBAMA: I admit Secret Service doesn't let me fill up my own tank now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. OBAMA: But I remember before I was president, the last time gas prices went up this high. It's tough.
HORSLEY: In fact, gasoline prices hit their all-time peak in the summer of 2008, when Mr. Obama was running for president and Drill, Baby, Drill became a rallying cry for his Republican opponents. Back then, Mr. Obama argued there was no quick fix for four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. He made that point again this week.
Pres. OBAMA: Every time gas prices go up like this, like clockwork, suddenly politicians look around and they discover high gas prices. And they're shocked. And they get in front of TV and they say, you know, we've got a three-point plan to bring gas down to two bucks a gallon. And then when gas prices go down, nothing ever happens.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama himself has had little success pushing Congress to adopt a comprehensive energy strategy. He has managed to raise fuel economy standards and boost investment in electric cars. But neither of those is a quick antidote to high gas prices. So Thursday, the president added a new message, announcing the Justice Department has teamed up with state and federal regulators to root out any manipulation in the oil and gasoline markets.
(Soundbite of applause)
Pres. OBAMA: We're going to make sure that nobody's taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gain.
HORSLEY: This search for a villain to blame for high pump prices has a familiar ring to it. And no wonder. Former President Bush called for a similar investigation almost exactly five years ago, when the price of gas was nearing $3 a gallon.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans understand by and large that the price of crude oil is going up and that the prices are going up. But what they don't want and will not accept is manipulation of the market, and neither will I.
HORSLEY: Back then, in April of 2006, I talked with John Seesel of the Federal Trade Commission. He told me the energy business probably gets more scrutiny than any other industry. So much, the federal government is investigating gasoline prices pretty much all the time.
Mr. JOHN SEESEL (Associate General Counsel for Energy, Federal Trade Commission): Our staff looks very carefully to see if there is some kind of anti-competitive conduct going on that might explain the price. And we have found in virtually every situation, really every situation, that market forces are generally causing those situations.
HORSLEY: But even though they almost never find any wrongdoing, Seesel said this week, investigators will keep the oil and gasoline industries under a microscope.
President Obama acknowledged that as long as American drivers depend so heavily on gasoline to get around, they'll be vulnerable to spikes in the price of crude oil.
Pres. OBAMA: The truth is, the only real solution to helping families at the pump in the medium- and the long-term is clean energy. That's how we'll save families money. That's how we'll reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We've got to develop new technologies to lessen our reliance on a fuel that is finite and that we've got to import from other countries.
HORSLEY: And none of that is likely to happen before this summer's driving season or the 2012 election.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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