By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said he was seeking ways to provide "immediate relief" for high U.S. gasoline prices as he courted women voters with an appeal on pocketbook issues considered crucial to his re-election bid.
Obama's appearance on TV talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey's popular syndicated program gave him a friendly forum to try to reconnect with her nationwide audience dominated by women, a key constituency that helped him win the White House in 2008.
In a segment taped in Chicago on Wednesday and airing on Monday, Obama acknowledged his political fortunes may hinge not only on his handling of economic problems but on what happens with soaring oil prices, which have eroded his popularity.
Obama described as "unbelievable" the current prices at the pump, which have stoked public ire and become a highly charged political issue that Republicans hope to use against him as the 2012 presidential election campaign gets under way.
"There are families across the country who they've got to drive 50 miles just to get to their job and they just see that money bleeding away from them," he said. "We have to think short-term how can we provide people immediate relief."
"Do I have to call the Saudis to see if they can ramp up production? Are we making sure that we are doing everything we can internally to prevent price gouging? Can we eliminate some subsidies that are going to oil companies that are making out like bandits right now?"
But Obama stopped short of offering remedies beyond those he has already proposed and which analysts see as unlikely to alter the situation soon. The average U.S. price has surged toward $4 a gallon amid Middle East unrest and a weak dollar.
Obama has called for an end to tax breaks for Big Oil, opened a probe of market speculators and urged world producers to raise output. But he has not tapped strategic reserves or backed Republican calls for major new domestic drilling.
Winfrey, an Obama friend and supporter regarded as the most influential woman on American television, observed that "when gas prices go up, your polls go down."
"They do," Obama said. "But what I also have to think about is long term," he said, citing the need to invest in electric cars, biofuels and high-speed rail.
Under gentle questioning punctuated by frequent applause from the studio audience in his adopted hometown, Obama sounded themes that resonate with women voters, including boosting jobs and education, and tried to show he felt their economic pain.
He said he still hopes to restore civility to Washington even as budget battles rage, but when asked to name a Republican he admired, all he came up with was Abraham Lincoln.
Obama went to Winfrey's studio after releasing his full birth certificate in an effort to end what he called a "silly" debate over his citizenship stoked by political opponents.
He has taken a more centrist tone to win back moderate independent voters who helped propel his 2008 victory but, turned off by stubbornly high unemployment and a sluggish economy, abandoned his Democrats in November's elections.
The president was joined on the couch at "The Oprah Winfrey Show" by first lady Michelle Obama, whose approval ratings have remained lofty even as her husband's have dropped.
Winfrey lent her celebrity star power to his 2008 presidential campaign and will likely do so again. Her show -- which each day draws millions of viewers, 75 percent of them women -- will end its 25-year run later this month.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)