If only President Obama could channel Jimmy Carter, without the cardigan, to launch a national crusade on energy conservation. It would be a risky act, because Carter's admonition to Americans to throw on a few extra layers and turn down the heat to deal with the 1970s energy shortage remains the most ridiculed request of national sacrifice in modern times. Just mentioning it gives people, particularly Democrats, the cooties.
Last year, on the 30th anniversary of Carter's "Crisis of Confidence'' speech, which was dubbed the "malaise'' speech, a reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs whether that address shaped Obama's thinking on energy. Gibbs replied, to laughter, "I forgot my yellow sweater.'' When asked if the president agreed with the premise of Carter's speech, Gibbs responded, "I have not heard him discuss it.'' There is no better time to discuss it.
For 2 1/2 weeks, the oil spill from the exploded BP platform has approached the Gulf Coast with all the drama of "The Blob.'' There will no doubt be serious ecological and economic damage. But the oil industry is banking on a very short memory by Americans. Robert Dudley, the BP executive vice president of operations in the Americas and Asia, said in Boston this week that he anticipates no serious end to offshore drilling because "the world is thirsty for oil.''
So far, Obama, a darling of environmentalists in his presidential campaign, has used neither the spill nor the recent West Virginia coal mine disaster to discuss our thirst for fossil fuels. Instead, he raised the ire of environmentalists in March by announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration. He claimed, "we'll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration.'' But as if current technology was mocking him, Obama went to Venice, La., this week to admit that this spill was "unique and unprecedented.'' Drilling in Mother Nature will always have an unprecedented effect.
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Obama said the government would do everything in its power to protect "one of the richest and most beautiful ecosystems on the planet.'' But Obama has yet to call on his full powers of persuasion to challenge Americans to think of themselves as a mere reed in the system. Since the Carter era, cars grew into SUVs, houses grew to twice the size of those in most of Europe, and our bellies ballooned into an obesity crisis. At 5 percent of the world's population, we consume a quarter of its energy.
Obama has the intellect to be the first president since Carter to say that our balloon will burst. It is chilling to think where we would be today if we stuck to Carter's goal of the "most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history'' for alternative energy. He wanted the nation's utility companies to slash their use of oil by 50 percent within the decade and he wanted billions for mass transit.
"I'm asking you, for your good and for your nation's security, to take no unnecessary trips, to use car-pools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit and to set your thermostats to save fuel,'' Carter said. "Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense. I tell you it is an act of patriotism . . . the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity . . . give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.''
In 1979, that was called malaise. Today, we mine and drill the planet to the point of malevolence to satisfy our level of consumption. Carter became a caricature of conservation in a cardigan, but Obama has the political capital to make energy conservation cool. This latest spill gives Obama the opportunity to ask Americans in the most personal of ways if they want a permanent crisis of confidence, as prisoners of oil.