President Obama once again linked himself to former President Jimmy Carter when the White House went public with plans to reinstall a solar power system.
The Carters were the last residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to use a legitimate solar array. Ronald Reagan tore down Carter’s panels like Gorbachev tore down that wall. From then on, solar was pretty much non-existent at the executive mansion for the next 30 years. The only exception is George W. Bush’s use of a small solar energy system to heat the White House swimming pool. But then came Obama who, like Carter, is flirting with making energy a major part of his presidency. But flirting and doing are two totally different things. Both are risky.
While his presidency is considered far from a knockout success, one of the strongest legacies of Jimmy Carter’s time in office was his commitment to a legitimate energy policy. Carter saw energy and the environment as moral issues. In 1977, wearing a sweater by the fireplace, Carter called the energy crisis of the late 1970’s “the morel equivalent of war,” while outlining a ten-point plan to tackle the issue. Carter asked Americans to conserve. He asked Americans to turn thermostats to 65 degrees during the day, and then 55 degrees at night.
Beyond providing talking points for dads from California to Maine, Carter’s presidency oversaw the creation of the Superfund to regulate hazardous and toxic waste sites in the name of pubic health. Yes, he installed the solar panels on the White House, but he also pushed an agenda that called for increased investment in all domestic energy production including coal and oil. Carter pushed for renewable development and investment and also created the Department of Energy.
In speeches President Carter was blunt when talking about energy. “We must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources,” he explained, while pivoting to concrete goals. Those goals included a two-percent reduction in American energy demand, a ten-percent reduction in gasoline use, cutting America’s reliance on foreign energy sources by 50 percent, and he called for more than 2.5 million homes in the United States to use solar power. Carter’s deadline for all of this was 1985.
Unfortunately for Carter, when 1985 came around, those goals had mostly gone unachieved and Ronald Regan was president. And in that little twist, perhaps there should be a lesson for the current president. Tread carefully.
And the current president may be taking notice. Obama’s words on energy seem to be very carefully chosen as of late. He is veering away from phrases like “climate change” and “cap and trade;” a totally different tactic from Carter who said America was facing a “crisis of confidence,” in 1979. Obama has a long way to go before he can equal Carter's eco-accomplishments. He’s off to a decent start in some areas, like fuel efficiency for vehicles, but he has nothing in the way of a major accomplishment on an overall energy policy.
The two men will forever be connected; they both rose to power from relative obscurity and did so in the wake of a failed presidency. Both face massive economic challenges. But other than the solar panels, when it comes to energy, their accomplishments are as different as their approach.