President Bush did an impressive job last night of laying out a sweeping vision for the rebuild of the Gulf Coast, offering a “pledge” to the American people that the federal government will “do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again,” he said.
I watched the speech on ABC and in interviews with survivors relocated to the Astrodome after it, try as he might, the reporter was unable to get a single person to criticize Bush’s speech, doubt his sincerity, veracity or commitment to the people of the region – it was quite funny actually, and anchorman Ted Koppel came back on and said something along the lines of, “well, if that’s an indication of the nation’s reaction to the speech, the president has accomplished much!”
One of things a president is best equipped to do is rally the nation behind a cause — to focus attention and create momentum for that cause — and Bush did this exceptionally well behind the War on Terror following 9/11, reasonably well for the war in Iraq (at least at the time), and appears to have now done quite well in the wake of Katrina.
But we also know that, besides being the right thing to do, people — including presidents — don’t always do the right thing until they are forced to do so by pressure of one kind or another: in the case of Katrina, the pressure came from near-universal condemnation of the government’s preparedness and immediate response to the storm and its appalling aftermath. His approval ratings were at their lowest, the images and stories from the scene were stark and visceral, and for Bush the options came down pretty much to all or nothing, and nothing was no longer a viable option.
The realities and politics of Katrina and the jaw-dropping shock of paying $50 or $60 to fill up my car with gas have led me to realize that one of Bush’s greatest failures, one that now has direct impact on the economy and the lives of nearly 300 million consumers, has been his blindness to the need for exactly the kind of sweeping, heroic, “do what it takes” national effort behind weaning the national transportation infrastructure off of its oil dependency, which is every bit as critical a national security issue as the War on Terror or rebuilding after Katrina.
Crude oil imports now account for about two-thirds of the American oil supply, double what they were three decades ago. In that same period, oil demand in the US has grown 18 percent while domestic production has continued to slow. We live in a car-driven society that is still almost wholly dependent upon oil.
With gas prices topping $3 a gallon at the pump, consumers may finally be ready to make the kinds of changes and sacrifices they were last willing to make after the Saudi oil embargo of the ’70s.
According to market survey company BIGresearch’s September figures, 80% of consumers say that fluctuating gas prices are having an impact on their spending and as a result they are delaying or reducing expenditures on cars, TVs, furniture, groceries, clothing, dining out and vacation/travel. 77% of those impacted by gas prices say they will be driving less. Confidence in the economy is also lower for this group, only 28.8% are confident or very confident vs. 35.5% of all consumers.
“The U.S. Consumer is not viewing fuel for their cars as a hard necessity, but between a need and a want, which has to be managed. This mindset will create spending impacts, which could have ‘a multiplier effect.’ In short, when the consumer has to think about gas for the American icon ‘family car,’ all facets of budget are put into question,” said Joe Pilotta, VP Research, BIGresearch.
This sounds like an opportunity to me.
James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence, thinks so too, under much better technological conditions than in the ’70s, as he told the America Abroad show in July.
“We’ve got several opportunities now from using carbon fiber, … such as is used in aircraft construction for car construction to radically lighten the weight and improve mileage to not only hybrids but plug-in hybrids, hybrid gasoline electric vehicles that can be plugged in overnight into your garage and top up the batteries and get very substantial increases in mileage,” he said.
He added that, we “don’t have to do a lot of R&D on these — a bit, but not a lot — to make ethanol for example, not just from expensive corn but from very cheap cellulosic bio-mass such as prairie grass, switch grass, or even waste paper; or to make bio-diesel, not from something that has to be cultivated even such as soy beans, but rather from waste such as what comes out of a turkey processing plant, or chicken litter, or whatever. Those technologies are now coming on the market, and those types of opportunities simply didn’t exist in the 1970s.”
And then there are the renewables like hydrogen and solar, which is where the real future lies after an alternative-fuels transitional period.
It will take a concerted national effort to accomplish these things — which would have the vital added benefit of forcing the Arab oil countries to diversify their economies — an effort only the president can rally at the highest level, to make reduction and eventual elimination of oil dependency a national, patriotic priority, but he will once again have to feel the heat in order to do the right thing.
The world’s oil reserves will only last another 50-100 years at current consumption rates anyway, and that doesn’t take into account potentially vastly rising demand from China.
The time is now to bring the heat.