There's no need to make energy promises you can keep: The key is getting people to listen to pledges you won't fulfill.
President Obama now finds himself between a pipeline and a hard place. With his green supporters getting arrested on the White House lawn and pressure to okay the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from the State Department, the president is in yet another no-win situation. If he had fully articulated a 21st-century low carbon energy plan, or pushed through a climate change bill or even treaty, he'd be able to okay the pipeline and point to his larger strategy. Unfortunately, he's now in the position of just backing the pipeline and looking like he never really cared. He could learn a lot from Michele Bachmann, whose political acumen on the subject of energy is striking.
Intellectually, Bachmann's energy position doesn't make much sense. But she has an excellent political ear, a fine sense of theatrical timing, and the ability to pull off political stunts that are counter-intuitive. And when it comes to energy, she has a gut sense that puts most of the other challengers to shame. Two weeks ago she caught an enormous amount of flak for saying this: "Under President Bachmann, you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again. That will happen."
Punditlandia concentrated on what Bachman said: The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal pointed out that presidents don't control the price of gas; Time's Bryan Walsh said increasing oil production won't reduce the price of gas; John Huntsman said it wasn't "real world." All so true!
But then again, since 1974 American presidential candidates have been promising the impossible with energy and failing to deliver every single time. Nixon said the country would be energy independent by 1980, and then President Ford moved the goal post to 1985. Carter called it "the moral equivalent of War," and moved the date to 1990. And so on. In 2003 President Bush promised that a child born that year would have a hydrogen car as his or her first car which was part of promoting "energy independence." Obviously, there's no need to make energy promises you can keep: The key is getting people to listen to them.
Bachmann's genius is that she neatly pivoted away from the impossible dream of energy independence to the impossible dream of $2 gas, which is hugely important to struggling lower middle class voters. While intellectuals heard "$2 gas" and scoffed at the hubris, many Americans heard "$2 gas" and thought such cheap fuel would be awfully nice to have and that "President Bachmann" would feel their pain more than someone mealy mouthing away about cutting imports from the Middle East. After 38 years of stasis, Bachmann managed to change the premise of the energy debate away from the abstraction of "independence" to the visceral issue of price. In addition to getting the phrase "President Bachmann" into our ears, she managed to turn every one of the country's more than 120,000 gasoline price signs into a rebuking advertisement for herself.
This is not a savant-ish accident on Bachmann's part. She's been talking about $2 gas since 2008 among voters in her own state. Statistics back up the idea that $2/gallon is the comfort point for households making $50,000 a year. As I've mentioned here before, the Department of Commerce estimates (pdf) that at $2.53 a gallon that family pays $7900 for car and fuel a year--more than they pay in taxes or health care (the big Republican and Democratic promises to this demographic, respectively). At today's price of $3.59/gallon they're spending more than $8332 on their car, but I'd guess most of them drive cars that get 20 mpg rather than the 31 mpg that the estimates are based on. That means they're spending $9135 on their cars--more than 18 percent of their total income. Over the past 8 months, I've been interviewing drivers for my blog The Energy Trap, and many spend far more than this on their commutes, and feel they have no control over that spending, or over their economic fate. They, no doubt, have heard Bachmann's promise.
President Obama needs to pull off a similar pivot. He needs to offer a pragmatic greenish future for the middle class, and it should start with car costs. He can't promise $2 gas--instead he should promise and deliver a cheaper commute. For much of his presidency, the lower middle class has been paying extravagantly to get to work as oil prices rise and fall. Without much access to credit, they've been unable to get tax credits for Priuses, take advantage of Cash-for-Clunkers, or qualify for the luxurious tax kickbacks for buying a Volt or a Tesla. As oil prices have risen, the price for conventional fuel efficient cars has risen. Money for mass transit seems to help transit high wage earners more than low wage earners, according to a recent Brookings Study. If the Waxman-Markey climate bill had passed, the middle class might have gotten a worse deal: This CBO study found that while the lowest income families would get a payout to cover additional costs from cap and trade, the richest 20 percent of American households would get 63 percent of the value of the greenhouse gas allowances awarded to businesses. This was not fair, and whether voters have understood this intellectually, they have felt its unfairness on a gut level.
President Obama should start talking about the other green -- cash -- make a stimulus program that will reduce the amount of money middle class Americans spend on their cars, create jobs in Detroit, and reduce the amount of oil we burn and greenhouse gases we create. I wrote about a model car loan program called More Than Wheels, in the primary state of New Hampshire, last week. Rather than making the EPA fight for its life, the president should make an explicit case that the EPA creates jobs and reduces costs. Here is a pragmatic green promise to the middle class: "You know that promising $2 gas is a political stunt. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to promise that you'll buy less gas and make our economy and environment stronger at the same time. I'm going to promise that we can make a more economically and environmentally secure future for our kids." And, taking a page from Bachmann, he needs to pay more attention to the people who are listening than to those who are speaking.
Image credit: Reuters