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Obama's Low-Octane Energy Message

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
June 16, 2010

Obama's Low-Octane Energy Message - obamas-low-octane-energy-message


President Barack Obama had two reasonable choices for his June 15 Oval Office address. He could have focused solely on the disaster in the Gulf. Or he could have used part of the speech to present a strong case for making the United States far less dependent on oil. In the end, though, he chose to stake a weak middle ground, wading into long-term energy policy without fully delivering the goods.

Obama rightly devoted most of his address to the disaster in the Gulf and to the challenge of remediating the areas affected by it. He could have been forgiven for stopping right there. Policy wonks always hope presidents will use big occasions to present big ideas. But Obama is under a lot of pressure to respond forcefully to the immediate crisis. A president can't push big ideas unless he maintains broad political support.

Yet Obama chose to go further and make a case for a new energy future. The brief part of his speech that was devoted to a long-term vision for U.S. energy policy, though, was disappointing.

The president explained the problems that oil causes. This may have helped solidify some support. But most Americans already understand that dependence on oil costs this country money every day. They also understand, at least now, that there are serious environmental consequences to that dependence. What they do not understand is what it will take to change that.

Yet the president did little to alter that unfortunate condition. There was no simple and understandable goal, like halving U.S. oil imports by some date certain, that Obama could later use to hold lawmakers accountable with. Obama presented a list of relatively weak or ill-defined policies: He spoke of new efficiency standards for buildings, minimum requirements for wind and solar power, and an unspecified effort to "rapidly boost" investment in energy technology research and development, without saying anything about who would pay, and how. These were probably enough to be confusing but not enough to draw a clear line. Even these mild policies did not come with an endorsement. Instead, the president merely said that they "have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead."

Some will fault the president for not having pivoted to a push for a climate bill. That is too much to ask--climate and oil are related, but they are not the same. There are, however, far more ambitious agendas for slashing U.S. oil dependence than what the president endorsed. It is unfortunate that, having chosen to address the big picture in his speech, Obama didn't deliver more.

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