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Cheaper gas is a tricky political calculus

Politicians avoid credit and blame

Customer Arthur Silevicz said in Brockton that people are “going to pay whether it goes up or not.”

George rizer for the globe

Customer Arthur Silevicz said in Brockton that people are “going to pay whether it goes up or not.”

Gas prices have fallen 50 cents since mid-April to an average of $3.44 a gallon nationwide and could hit $3 a gallon by the end of the summer, a boon to consumers and businesses feeling squeezed in a difficult economy.

But politicians are remaining uncharacteristically silent on the issue. Republicans, who sharply criticized President Obama as gas prices headed toward $4 a gallon earlier this year, don’t want to associate any positive trend with the current administration. And President Obama and other Democrats are reluctant to crow about declines in energy costs that are largely the result of a slowing economy and the increasing risk of a global recession, led by Europe’s debt and banking woes.

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“That’s sort of the paradox,” said AAA Southern New England spokeswoman Mary Maguire. “When economies are robust and thriving, we see a tremendous demand for oil, gas, and energy products. But when economies are faltering, we see demand go down and we see falling prices.”

Drivers are seeing costs drop almost daily. Gas fell another 6 cents a gallon in Massachusetts over the past week, according to AAA’s latest survey. Gas prices in the state are down about 13 percent over the past 10 weeks, falling to an average of $3.37 from $3.89 in mid-April.

The cost to fill up your tank climbed over the winter as tensions mounted with Iran, sparking fears that the country’s nuclear program could lead to military action that would disrupt oil supplies. Then tensions eased just as parts of Europe went into a recession, prompting a global slowdown in demand for oil as consumers and businesses pulled back on spending.

Gas prices may continue to fall amid weak US growth and concerns about whether Europe will drag the rest of the world into another recession. A rise in domestic oil production, which made the United States a net exporter of refined oil products this year for the first time since the 1940s, is also keeping gas cheap this summer.

“We probably still have some room on the downside. Gas could approach $3 [a gallon] by the end of the summer,” said Joe Petrowski, chief executive of Framingham-based Gulf Oil, a wholesale gas distributor that also operates about 2,000 gas station-convenience stores nationwide.

As for politicians, they have little control over the price of gas, and as it continues to drop, Democratic and Republican strategists agree: Their candidates should avoid talking about it.

“Gas prices are like the weather,” said Boston-based Democratic political consultant Dan Payne. “You can’t predict them, and sometimes it’s going to be nice and sometimes it’s going to be dreadful.”

Over the winter, Obama made a point of saying global markets were responsible for high gas prices, so he can’t turn around and take credit for the drop, analysts say. Conversely, Republicans who held Obama accountable for the increase don’t want it to seem as if the president has anything to do with falling prices.

And trying to explain to consumers that lower gas prices are a function of a slower economy could backfire.

“Not too many people want to criticize good news,” said Todd Domke, a Republican political analyst based in Boston.

Obama spokesman Michael Czin declined to comment on why the president isn’t trumpeting falling gas prices; instead he pointed to Obama’s energy strategy focusing on domestic oil, wind, solar, and biofuels, while encouraging green energy.

A spokeswoman for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Andrea Saul, also danced around the question of why Romney isn’t talking about bargains at the pump, saying his goal is to make energy more affordable.

Overall, lower gas prices are better for Obama than for Romney, analysts say, because it keeps more money in voters’ wallets and makes them think of the current administration more favorably.

“It operates somewhat like a tax cut,” said Brian Bethune, chief economist at Alpha Economic Foresights LLC in Boston.

If Obama highlights today’s cheaper gas, though, it may provide an opening for Republicans to remind voters that prices were much lower before he took office in 2009.

“He’s worried that talking up lower gas prices will invite a comparison to the end of the Bush administration, when gas prices had fallen below $2,” said Rob Gray, a Republican political strategist in Boston.

Despite the plummeting price, drivers who are still paying $50 or more to fill up their tanks want more relief at the pump. At the Prestige MiniMart Express in Brockton, customer Arthur Silevicz said gas was still too expensive. “It ain’t low enough,” he said. “But what can you do? You’re going to pay whether it goes up or not.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com and on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com and on Twitter @DanielAdams86.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the United States’ oil exports. The United States was a net exporter of refined oil products for the first time this year since the 1940s.

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