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'Malaise': The last time a president told the truth about energy

Carter and Obama
Opponents want to paint Obama as the new Jimmy Carter -- a loser. But Obama might actually do well to read Carter's brilliant and unfairly maligned "malaise" speech and start talking honestly about energy as Carter did.

Today's energy crunch is starting to look more and more like the energy crisis of the late 1970s. But if President Obama doesn't want to end up like Jimmy Carter, maybe he should consider actually taking a page out of Carter's playbook and start leveling with the American public about energy.

After the anniversary of Carter's "malaise" speech earlier this month, Mitt Romney tried to cast Obama as Carter-esque -- that it to say, a loser. Obama made an off-the-cuff comment that Americans are "stressed out" by today's economic problems. In response, Romney's campaign pumped out a press release comparing today's economy to the recession under Carter and Obama's remarks to Carter's infamous speech of July 1979.

But was that speech, which Republicans have used again and again as an example of weak leadership, really so bad? And did the public's reaction to the speech, in which Carter never used the word "malaise" but did talk about a "crisis of confidence," seal Carter's fate as a one-term wonder?

Whatever the GOP wants you to think, the answer to both questions is no.

The speech itself was brilliant. And the public loved it. If many other things hadn't gone wrong, that speech could've saved Carter's presidency and put America on the path to a sane energy policy while we still had time.

Conservation a sign of civic virtue

Carter was the last president to talk honestly with the public about energy, even if some of his energy ideas wouldn't pass the green test today.

And as in his other much-maligned "sweater" speech, where Carter focused on conservation and "thrift," in the malaise speech he eschewed the path later taken by Reagan, Clinton and Bush Junior that nearly any economic problem could be solved if only America's tight-fisted consumers would just go out and buy more stuff. Instead of pandering, Carter did the opposite, and blamed the public for being too materialistic:

Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

As in so many things, Carter was dead right about consumerism: once basic needs are met, studies show, consumption may not make people any happier.

Carter then went on to outline America's crisis of confidence in terms that sound all too contemporary --

For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote...a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions.

Today, it's easy to understand why ordinary citizens have checked out of the political process, because government has so clearly been hijacked by corporate plutocrats, making Washington largely irrelevant to the world's real problems of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse peppered with obscene inequality of wealth.

But even in his day, Carter saw plutocracy as a problem and he bemoaned "a system of government that seems incapable of action...a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests."

Unlike Obama, who has kept his head down on the subject of energy, Carter was not afraid to finger the real culprit behind the late seventies recession: the energy crisis, which he called "a clear and present danger." And his solution to the economy was not to bail out Wall Street or tinker with the housing market, but to come up with a solution for energy: "Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally."

A visionary energy blueprint

Carter concluded with the outline of a plan for the US to "never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never." Along with some bad ideas like retrofitting power plants to burn coal instead of petroleum and developing shale oil -- more understandable in a world not yet warned about climate change -- the plan included many good ideas, all to be paid for with a windfall profits tax, such as:

  • Oil import quotas (anticipating by three decades Colin Campbell's Oil Depletion Protocol)
  • An energy security corporation to build domestic energy capacity on a war-footing, reminiscent of the War Production Board which helped the auto and other manufacturers to pump out tanks, guns and ships during World War II
  • A solar bank that would finance PV panels around the country to produce 20% of our energy from the sun by 2000
  • And of course, "a bold conservation program to involve every state, county, and city and every average American in our energy battle. This effort will permit you to build conservation into your homes and your lives at a cost you can afford."

The speech ended on a note that today seems quaintly and almost mysteriously honest, actually calling for the public to "sacrifice":

I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act. We can manage the short-term shortages more effectively and we will, but there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.

Obama's wasted opportunity

The peak oil community encouraged Obama to mark the occasion of the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill in April of this year by making a major energy speech where he would talk about peak oil and ask the public to help him prepare the nation for a lower-energy future. In that speech, he could've done worse than to follow Carter's example and to talk honestly about the industrial world's huge energy challenge.

But it didn't happen. Obama just let the Gulf spill anniversary pass unnoticed. He hasn't acknowledged peak oil. And he has yet to take any other occasion to make a major speech on energy at all or to connect the dots between the Great Recession and today's oil crunch.

Yes, Obama missed an opportunity. But the piper must still be paid.

So, sometime soon a president will have to make a big speech on energy. It may be Obama or it may be President Romney. But with oil surely due to rise soon back up to its historic high of $147 a barrel and then go even further, possibly to $200 or beyond, an oil crash is coming that will bring on a national emergency even worse than Carter faced.

Just as in the seventies, there will be gas lines, high inflation and a crisis of confidence in the government. When Carter gave his malaise speech, the nation was in full panic mode: "Ten days earlier, truckers and residents had rioted in usually quiet Levittown, Pennsylvania, setting bonfires to protest inflationary costs and limited supplies of fuel, made worse by recent machinations of OPEC," according to historian Kevin Mattson.

Yet, after giving the speech, Carter's approval rating went up a whopping 11%. Apparently, the American public was ready to hear some hard truths about energy and the economy. They were ready to be asked to sacrifice, as long as it was fair. They could accept that things would be hard, as long as the White House was providing leadership that was strong. As Mattson writes,

The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, “You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%.”

Unfortunately, Carter then went on to spoil things by firing his whole cabinet a couple days later, signalling government meltdown. And we all know what happened in the 1980 presidential race. That's when Reagan's campaign made a secret (and probably treasonous) deal with the Iranians to hold the US embassy hostages until after the election, thus sabotaging Carter's negotiations with Tehran, a dirty-trick October surprise that effectively worked to steal the election.

The final energy crisis

In the new energy crisis that's coming, things will surely start out much the same as in the seventies. The president will get on TV to talk about America's dependence on foreign oil, as every president since Nixon has done. He'll connect it to the economy. He'll call for an all-out effort to build energy security and he will ask the public to help.

But this time, there won't be three decades left of oil for the US to import from other countries. Now, the world is tapped out on cheap oil at the most inconvenient possible time -- just when millions of new drivers in China and India are competing for the gas at American pumps.

The next president to talk to the American people about an energy crisis won't have the luxury of time to implement a plan to build US energy security over decades. Our situation will be much more serious. In that emergency, gas rationing will be only the mildest of measures that the government will propose to keep civil order and try to prevent total economic collapse within weeks or months.

And the worst part is, none of it may even work.

As Mitt Romney so eloquently put it in his news release, “Who would have guessed that we’d look back upon the Carter administration as the good old days?”

-- Erik Curren

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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