Why It's So Difficult For Presidents To Ask For Less Energy Use
The presidential candidates have their plans to deal with energy issues, but none of them are asking Americans to use less.
Maybe that’s because they remember what happened to President Jimmy Carter when he called for conservation during the energy crisis in the 1970s.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Meg Jacobs of Princeton University about her new book on the energy crisis and how history may be shaping presidential candidates’ respective approaches to energy concerns.
Interview Highlights: Meg Jacobs
On what the energy climate was like in the late-1970s
“It got bad, and there was a sense of chaos. There was a sense that America as the country had known it was coming to an end, and this led to a frantic rush to the pumps to tank up wherever possible. And people were carrying around a month’s supply of gasoline in their tanks rather than in tanks in the ground, which of course made the shortage worse. And as you say, this led to heightened tensions on the gas lines. There were fist fights, there were even, in a couple cases, murders. One man stabbed another to death in front of his pregnant wife.”
On why people were outraged about having to cut back on energy use
“I think it was the message itself. It’s not something common that we hear, presidents appealing to Americans to cut back, to live in a more thrifty fashion, to conserve. And Jimmy Carter was quite courageous in tackling the problem head on. He appeared in a cardigan sweater a couple of weeks into office and said frankly to the American people that their lives were going to have to change, that they were going to need to dial down their thermostats, they were going to have to carpool, they would have to use mass transit and they were going to have to fundamentally rethink the way that they had lived a life of abundance throughout much of the post-war years.”
“It’s not something common that we hear, presidents appealing to Americans to cut back, to live in a more thrifty fashion, to conserve. And Jimmy Carter was quite courageous in tackling the problem head on.”– Meg Jacobs
On how Carter’s efforts hurt his 1980 re-election bid
“When Reagan runs in 1980, he’s able to use the energy crisis and the gas lines and the shortages as exhibit A for why government has failed, and why government as a whole is not a solution to our national problems. He is able to capitalize on the sense of frustration that Washington can no longer provide. He wins in a landslide. And out goes conservation and in comes a president who’s much more a champion of full on production – that’s an early version of drill, baby, drill. And when we are not able to supply enough of our own fuel, Reagan calls for a greater military presence in the Gulf.
Reagan says that the way to a more abundant future is to get rid of all kinds of regulations on the energy industry, to environmental regulations, to price controls, and the very first thing he does, through executive order, is repeal the price controls and allocation measures that were in place in the 1970s.”
On the energy crisis’ long-term impact
“I think one of the lasting legacies of the energy crises and the failure to solve it in the 70s, was the way it undercut confidence in our government to solve any of our problems, so if Watergate and Vietnam taught us that our president’s lie and we can’t trust them, then the energy crisis taught Americans that government didn’t work. And that was one of the lasting legacies, which I believe, today, makes it difficult for us to make arguments that government can play an effective role as we transition to a new energy economy.”
Watch President Jimmy Carter’s First Energy Address
Music From This Segment
- Meg Jacobs, research scholar at Princeton University and author of “Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics.” She tweets @megjacobs100.
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