Carter did not give up. In mid-July, he once again asked Americans to cut back. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he said. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” He told Americans they had to drive less, carpool more, and use public transportation. “Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”
The speech didn’t work. Carter’s approval ratings continued to plummet. Conservation did not seem to be what most Americans wanted. And Americans blamed Washington for the panic at the pump. “Carter, Kiss My Gas,” became a popular bumper sticker.
Right up until the end of his time in office, Carter pushed for reforms. In 1980, at his insistence, Congress created the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which provided massive financial support for synthetic-fuel-manufacturing plants. Shortly before leaving office, he persuaded Congress to enact the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected vast amounts of land from becoming sites of oil exploration and production.
But President Carter was never able to build a strong political coalition to support limits on oil consumption. “The basic problem is that there is no constituency for an energy program,” said James Schlesinger, the country’s first energy secretary. “There are many constituencies opposed. But the basic constituency for the program is the future.” Most Americans saw the energy crisis as a shortage that threatened their way of life. As the novelist John Updike wrote in Rabbit Is Rich, the nation was “running out of gas”; knew “the Great America Ride is ending.”
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, had a very different vision of energy policy. “First we must decide that ‘less’ is not enough,” Reagan said on the campaign trail. “Next we must remove government obstacles to energy production. … It is no program simply to say ‘use less energy.’”
Reagan delivered. On January 28, 1981, his first major act was to issue an executive order that removed all remaining federal controls on the domestic production and distribution of oil and gasoline. “The long national nightmare of energy regulation is over,” noted one columnist in The Washington Post. “In his first major political decision as president, Ronald Reagan has pardoned the oil companies.”
Reagan’s actions were popular. Smaller Japanese cars like the Datsun, which had been all the rage in the 1970s, were replaced by bigger gas-guzzlers. In his hit song “I Can’t Drive Fifty-Five, ” Sammy Hagar sang to an imaginary cop, “Go on and write me up for 125. Post my face wanted dead or live,” capturing the feeling many had about the restrictions of the previous decade. Soon after his reelection, Reagan removed the White House solar panels.