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A tepid plea for unspecified change

Last night's presidential speech on the Gulf oil spill had been pre-billed by the Washington Post as Barack Obama's "Jimmy Carter moment." But reading any of Carter's speeches (a good one to start with is that of April 18, 1977) side by side with last night's bromide is an invitation to nostalgia and bitter disappointment.

President Obama offered up one promising paragraph:

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked—not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."

It sounds for all the world as though the President is about to unleash a grand program on the scale of the New Deal—an energy Moon Shot, a rousing call-to-arms reminiscent of December 8, 1941. But this is what follows:

"So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party—as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development—and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny—our determination to fight for the America we want for our children, even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there, we know we'll get there."

Translation: "I don't have a clue what to do; but, if anyone else has some good ideas, I'm all ears."

Look: I want Obama to succeed; I want it earnestly, even desperately. And so I hate to be critical. It's true that we've all got to work together to solve our energy crisis, and that means rising above partisanship. But leadership is sorely needed here, and leaders must set definite goals.

Jimmy Carter at least had a plan. He proposed lofty objectives and investments: targeted reductions in oil imports, an energy security corporation, a solar bank. In contrast, Obama's strategy seems to be to avoid specifics while insisting that we Americans will somehow overcome our oil dependency because . . . well, because we're Americans. We've gotten through other scrapes throughout our history as a nation, so why not this one? "I demand action," the President seems to be saying, "but I'm unwilling to say what that action should be."

Yes, we Americans have risen to meet previous challenges. The problem is, we haven't been doing so well in dealing with the energy crisis, which has been going on for at least forty years—since 1970, when U.S. oil production peaked and began declining. Despite complaints, exhortations, and hand-wringing from both Democratic and Republican administrations, very little has actually been accomplished. America continues to import more oil, and to burn enormous amounts of coal and natural gas—and the monetary, geopolitical, and environmental prices we pay for these depleting fuels just keep escalating. Mr. Obama seems to say that now something has changed, but it would be nice to know what, and why, in a lot more detail.

The reality is that nothing significant has been done to deal with our energy crisis because tackling it will require fundamental changes to our economy—to our transport and food systems, even to our financial institutions. Until we are willing to honestly face the fact that an "American dream" based on ever increasing rates of consumption of non-renewable resources is a dead end, and that we will have to dramatically cut back on energy usage in order to make a transition away from fossil fuel dependency, all discussion about renewable energy, efficiency standards, and energy research is fairly pointless.

Call it the Carter Curse. Ever since the great peanut farmer-President scolded the American people about the need to reduce consumption in his famous series of cardigan-clad homilies, leaders have shied away both from telling the American people the truth about just how dire our energy dilemma really is, and from proposing any remedies powerful enough to make a difference. Instead we get only whimpers about our "addiction to oil" and timid suggestions to raise fuel economy standards another notch. It is assumed that if any President actually told it like it is—the way Carter did—he or she would suffer the same fate. Carter's plan, after all, was ignored by Congress and ridiculed by candidate Ronald Reagan, who trounced Carter in the 1980 election.

Maybe the Carter Curse is real. Perhaps straight talk about energy is political suicide. But if nobody at least tries—if no one has the courage to make specific proposals that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge that faces us—then the political survival of the current office holder is essentially irrelevant. If no one is willing to confront the Carter Curse head on, then in effect we face a failure of our political system that will also ensure a failure of our economic system, our food system, and our transport system.

I keep hoping that's not the case, but hope needs to be based on evidence from time to time, and I'm not seeing any.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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