On Monday, Barack Obama delivered a well-received speech on energy policy in Lansing, Michigan - a speech that was so ambitious and on-point that it could singlehandedly put Michigan in the Obama column in November, in the opinion of this Michigander.
Yet for the most part, people aren't hearing about this speech. They're hearing about tire gauges and whether Obama flip-flopped on this or that, but they're not hearing about his 21st-century Manhattan Project to invest in the energy sector and solve the current crisis while strengthening our economy at the same time.
That needs to change. Let's talk about it.
The core of the speech itself was a trio of strong and effective proposals for federal government intervention in the energy issue.
First, we will help states like Michigan build the fuel-efficient cars we need, and we will get one million 150 mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrids on our roads within six years....
With technology we have on the shelf today, we will raise our fuel mileage standards four percent every year. We'll invest more in the research and development of those plug-in hybrids, specifically focusing on the battery technology. We'll leverage private sector funding to bring these cars directly to American consumers, and we'll give consumers a $7,000 tax credit to buy these vehicles. But most importantly, I'll provide $4 billion in loans and tax credits to American auto plants and manufacturers so that they can re-tool their factories and build these cars. That's how we'll not only protect our auto industry and our auto workers, but help them thrive in a 21st century economy.
The second step I'll take is to require that 10% of our energy comes from renewable sources by the end of my first term - more than double what we have now. To meet these goals, we will invest more in the clean technology research and development that's occurring in labs and research facilities all across the country and right here at MSU, where you're working with farm owners to develop this state's wind potential and developing nanotechnology that will make solar cells cheaper.
I'll also extend the Production Tax Credit for five years to encourage the production of renewable energy like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy...
We'll also invest federal resources, including tax incentives and government contracts, into developing next generation biofuels...
In addition, we'll find safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste. And we'll invest in the technology that will allow us to use more coal, America's most abundant energy source, with the goal of creating five "first-of-a-kind" coal-fired demonstration plants with carbon capture and sequestration...
As we develop new sources of energy and electricity, we will also need to modernize our national utility grid so that it's accommodating to new sources of power, more efficient, and more reliable. That's an investment that will also create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and one that I will make as President.
Finally, the third step I will take is to call on businesses, government, and the American people to meet the goal of reducing our demand for electricity 15% by the end of the next decade. This is by far the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to reduce our energy consumption - and it will save us $130 billion on our energy bills...
We will set a goal of making our new buildings 50% more efficient over the next four years. And we'll follow the lead of California and change the way utilities make money so that their profits aren't tied to how much energy we use, but how much energy we save.
In just ten years, these steps will produce enough renewable energy to replace all the oil we import from the Middle East. Along with the cap-and-trade program I've proposed, we will reduce our dangerous carbon emissions 80% by 2050 and slow the warming of our planet. And we will create five million new jobs in the process.
Why It Matters
This is a strong, visionary energy plan that addresses the pressing issue of the day and shows us the way to the future. And it squarely rebuts the GOP talking point that making efforts to reform the energy sector and address climate change will destroy our economy. In fact, with the right investments in the alternative energy sector, we can create new jobs and grow the economy by leaps and bounds.
Energy is a winning issue for progressives because people already understand that this is a problem which will require large-scale government intervention. There are some issues where the GOP will be able to persuade people to just step back and let the free market sort it out. That approach is not going to work with the energy problem, and as long as we're proposing positive, proactive solutions, the GOP is going to be left unable to make a competing set of proposals unless they're prepared to propose major government intervention of their own.
Not everything Obama has proposed on energy will be noncontroversial among progressives. Attention has already been focused on his decision to remain open to a limited increase in offshore drilling and his proposal to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for short-term relief. And nuclear power and "clean coal," of course, have long been subjects of debate among progressives.
But I would urge everyone to keep their eyes on the big picture. If Obama's plan is 90% good and 10% bad, from your perspective, it is counterproductive to spend all your time trying to fix the bad 10% when you could be focusing on publicizing a plan that is 90% good and electing the candidate who will make it happen. And from a political standpoint, some of the concessions - like supporting a limited role for nuclear power - help to keep wedge issues off the table and deprive the GOP of their standard arguments that distract voters from the real issues.
What Needs To Be Done
Barack Obama is fortunate to have a grassroots army that is ready and willing to get the word out. But there are two things that need to be done at the campaign level to make it possible, and here's hoping they will be done.
The first thing is to make the plan accessible. I don't mean go-to-his-website accessible, I mean that it needs to be reduced to a SOUNDBITE or ONE-SENTENCE SUMMARY that, through repetition, will become shorthand for "Barack Obama's awesome energy plan."
When some guy at the office says, "I hear Obama thinks we can fix the energy problem by inflating our tires," you should be able to say, "Actually, he proposes that we _______." When Democrats in local races want to show voters that they have real solutions to gas prices and the energy problem, they should be able to say "I support Barack Obama's plan to _______." Maybe the message gurus will come up with something like "invest in the alternative energy sector and create millions of new jobs" or perhaps they'll come up with something considerably wittier. That one's not on me. But we can't all go door-to-door passing out copies of Obama's full speech, so they need to distill the essence of this message into a soundbite pronto.
The second thing the campaign has to do is keep talking about this. In stump speeches, interviews, everywhere until there is not a shadow of a doubt that Barack Obama has a comprehensive, serious plan to address the energy crisis. This is not the typical election where you give a "big speech on energy," and then the next week you've moved on to giving a big speech on education or foreign policy or whatever. Energy is clearly the #1 issue on people's minds for this election and it cannot be left by the wayside as "last week's issue." People want to hear real solutions and this plan provides them.
No one should underestimate the potential for millions of voters to show up on election day because they trust Barack Obama to solve the energy crisis. I think the planet would kinda like that outcome, too.