I’ve seen a lot of Democratic campaign operatives and even economic analysts talk themselves out of the idea that elevated gas prices represent a constraint on both the economy and the expected performance of the President in his re-election campaign. But new polling numbers make it tougher to spin this away. Despite trends that the public doesn’t outwardly blame the President for rising gas prices, looking at numbers that intersect with that, such as the President’s handling of the economy or his performance against his Republican challengers, it’s clear that gas prices are starting to matter:

Disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy is heading higher — alongside gasoline prices — as a record number of Americans now give the president “strongly” negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign’s most important issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Gas prices are a main culprit: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation at the pump, where rising prices have already hit hard. Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue, his lowest rating in the poll. Most Americans say higher prices are already taking a toll on family finances, and nearly half say they think that prices will continue to rise, and stay high [...]

The negative movement has also stalled what had been a gradual increase since the fall in the president’s overall approval rating. In the new poll, 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 50 percent disapprove. That’s a mirror image of his 50 to 46 positive split in early February. The downshift is particularly notable among independents — 57 percent of whom now disapprove — and among white people without college degrees, with disapproval among this group now topping approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

These groups are also the ones whose shifting support has re-shuffled prospective general-election matchups. Among registered voters, Obama is now on par with Romney (47 percent for the president, 49 percent for Romney) and Santorum (49 to 46 percent). Previously, Obama held significant advantages over both.

Definitely a bad poll for Obama. And I never understood why everyone tried to laugh off $4 a gallon gas in key areas of the country ($4.30 where I sit) as no big deal. It’s not like wages have increased to any significant degree to deal with those fuel costs. I agree that it’s irrational to look to a President to set the price of gas, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t correspond with a general malaise about the economy, even when the job market is picking up.

As for how the President can deal with the issue, his options are limited but not completely illusory. He can authorize the CFTC to crack down on over-speculation, which can be a problem even if correct about future oil costs given geopolitical realities. And the President has tried to slow down the other major risk to the price of oil, a regional war between Iran and Israel. He can tamp down the rhetoric stateside and stop the glorifying profiles about the Defense Secretary making plans for attack as well. Each piece of overheated rhetoric on Iran raises that price at the pump another notch. Channeling the energies toward diplomacy and opening up sites to inspection has benefits well beyond oil prices, but a residual benefit there.

It should be added that gas prices habitually go down after the summer, and this trend may improve the President’s chances right at election time.