15 July 2008

Taking action....by not taking action?

Presidential leadership styles can vary, and it is interesting to look at how presidents react differently to similar situations.
At a press conference today, President George W. Bush said he wouldn’t call on Americans to conserve gasoline, saying that consumers were “plenty bright” to figure out “if they should drive more or less.”
“It’s a little presumptuous on my part to dictate how consumers live their own lives,” the president added. “I've got faith in the American people. (I find this ironic, seeing as Bush seems to have few qualms about dictating how other people live their lives; his views on gay marriage and abortion come to mind). It seems like it makes sense to me to say to the world that we’re going to use, you know, new technologies to explore for oil and gas in the United States ... to send a clear message that the supplies of oil will increase.”
I would like to compare this message of taking-action-by-not-taking-action with remarks made by then-President Jimmy Carter in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979. In it, Carter tried to set “a clear goal” for the energy policy of the United States to never use more foreign oil than it did in 1977. He said new additions to demands for energy would be met from U.S. production and conservation, and promised import quotas, a massive investment in alternative energy solutions, and the creation of the country’s first solar bank, which he said was important to meeting a goal of having 20 percent of the country’s energy come from solar power by 2000. Carter, unlike Bush, wasn’t shy when it came to asking Americans to sacrifice for what he saw as a common good.
“I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools 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,” he said. “Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense – I tell you it is an act of patriotism. Our nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices. We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our nation's strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.”
In comparison to this soaring rhetoric, I find Bush’s comments both lacking and entirely expected. This is coming from the same administration that, in the wake of 9/11, told Americans, shocked and eager to do something to help the country, to spend money, to live their lives as if nothing happened, to “keep America rolling.” Now, when those wheels are in danger of stopping because the gas tanks fueling them are running on fumes, we get claptrap about “new technologies” and pious rhetoric about not telling Americans what to do.
I may have been a mere fetus when this Carter speech was given, but I know what happened to Carter in 1980: Americans voted him out of office, choosing former California Governor Ronald Reagan in the election Nov. 4, 1980.
Regardless of what historians may think of Carter, I admire his courage. He at least tried to get the American people to do something unpleasant (but, in hindsight, fortuitous and wise). The energy crisis we faced in 1979 didn’t go away; if anything, it came back with a vengeance (for different reasons) in the past few years, when we’ve seen the price of a gallon of gasoline has quadruple in 10 years. Now, when the American people could possible use a little bit of “control over our own lives,” our president instead gives us words as empty as our gas tanks.

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