WASHINGTON -- Quick: What do these things have in common? Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Wall Street volatility. A cranky, even angry American populace.
Answer: They all have something to do with gasoline. No matter what happens in the world today, just about everything points back to fuel and the tricky politics that emerge when prices go up.
Is it any wonder then that a recent Associated Press-GfK poll shows a correlation between the country's more pessimistic outlook and rising gas prices?
The issue also has taken on greater importance to Americans. They rank it above subjects including Iraq, Afghanistan, immigration, terrorism and taxes. Last fall, 54 percent called gas prices a highly important issue to them personally, 77 percent said that in the latest poll.
Many don't expect relief from soaring gas costs anytime soon. Two-thirds said they expect that the higher prices will cause financial hardship for them or their families in the next six months.
That group includes more than a third who said gas cost spikes will cause serious financial hardship. And that is on top of a still-poor economy.
The underlying links between current events aren't lost on President Barack Obama, and for good reason. Like death and taxes, this cycle is a certainty -- prices at the pump rise, the public's mood falls and the president gets punished.
"Obviously, the situation in the Middle East implicates our energy security. The situation in Japan leads us to ask questions about our energy sources. In an economy that relies so heavily on oil, rising prices at the pump affect everybody," Obama said.
"Businesses see rising prices at the pump hurt their bottom line. Families feel the pinch when they fill up their tank. And for Americans that are already struggling to get by, a hike in gas prices really makes their lives that much harder," he said. "It hurts."
Sure, that's true. But there's also much more to it. In an era in which globalization is a given, gas prices are the most obvious, most closely felt connection between the daily lives of Americans and the larger world.
"Whenever gasoline prices spike, there is enormous political consternation because it's a highly invasive issue," said Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies energy policy and American politics.
Has there been a time in modern history when that's been more apparent than the past few weeks?
Look at what has happened:
--Populist uprisings swept across oil-rich North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt and now to Libya, where rebels are in a standoff with Gadhafi that has shut down much of the country's 1.5 million barrels a day of crude exports.
--Energy traders fear that unrest will spread farther across the region and disrupt shipments from bigger producers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
--An earthquake and tsunami in Japan last month triggered a nuclear emergency, with a nuclear plant leaking radiation. The reactor's near meltdown has renewed debate in the United States over nuclear fuel and raised questions about the vulnerability of some U.S. plants.
--Oil surged to a 30-month high, more than $100 a barrel, as investors worried that the unrest in Libya and elsewhere would keep crude exports from oil-producing nations off the market longer than expected. On Wall Street, key indexes fluctuated as oil prices soared.
Even if there is no proven cause and effect between the latest turn of events, there's a commonality that's not lost on experts and consumers alike.
"It's a combination of trends and luck that have put energy repeatedly at the forefront," said Michael Levi, director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"We always are going to be dealing with energy in some form or another because it's the lifeblood of society."
For decades, a national energy policy has proven elusive because Republicans and Democrats differ sharply over how to make America closer to energy independence. Progress has been impeded by not-in-my-backyard fights over nuclear plants and wind farms, and by battles over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain.
Consider the words that came out of one president's mouth: "This country needs to regain its independence from foreign sources of energy, and the sooner the better." That was Republican Gerald Ford -- in 1975.
Nearly four decades later, Obama said: "As long as our economy depends on foreign oil, we'll always be subject to price spikes."