Presidents don't control gas prices

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics," Mark Twain famously wrote in his autobiography.

What isn't quite so famous is that Twain's aphorism borrowed from a 19th century Russian who commented, "There are three kinds of lie: a small lie, a big lie, and politics."

The two versions have been joined this campaign year in the irrational discussion about the emotional issue of gasoline prices.

As contenders during the Republican primary fought to outdo each other in their anti-Obama fervor, the convenient fact arose that gas prices had doubled during the president's tenure.

Mitt Romney, now the party's nominee, has taken up the cry as one of his talking points and it's been adopted by a host of others.

It's a claim that can be supported through a narrow statistical lens.

When Obama took office in January of 2009, in the heart of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, gas prices had sunk to an average of $1.353 a gallon.

However, a slightly longer lens provides a different truth. During the first month, even the first days, Obama was president, gas prices were more than $2 a gallon lower than months earlier when George W. Bush was president.

Indeed, average prices in 2009 and 2010, the first two years of Obama's presidency, were lower than the averages during the last two years of Bush's term. (All historical numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov.)

What is the truth in all these statistics?

It's simply that, as Fox News and other conservative outlets asserted when prices skyrocketed while Republicans were trying to hold onto the White House, the president doesn't control gas prices.

That truth seems to have evaporated in the four years since. Many of the same sources are now hounding Obama about gas prices.

But they were right the first time. When oilman Bush was president prices fluctuated just as they have under Obama.

Oil prices, which drive gasoline prices, are affected by a wide range of factors that most of us can agree are out of the control of any U.S. president: the weather, wars, political tensions and global market forces like recessions.

Federal energy policy will in the long term affect our economy and voters should give deep consideration to Obama's policies and those proposed by Romney.

But warping statistics to scare voters over a hot-button issue like gasoline prices confirms the observation that politics is a step below even big lies.