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Will Obama Do More to Move Us Beyond Petroleum Than Previous Presidents?

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Pundits have generally given President Obama bad reviews on last week’s oval office speech, but as he often does, Jon Stewart hit the mark like no one else. Not because he was funnier (which he was) but because he put Obama’s speech in context. As Stewart shows, every president since Richard Nixon has given an earnest speech calling for an end to America’s dependence on foreign oil.

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In his 1974 State of the Union speech, Nixon said:

At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.

Every president since has repeated the call for energy independence while our dependence on oil imports has risen from less than 20% to over 60%.

As I have argued before, we do have a chance, finally, to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that would genuinely put us on a path to move our economy Beyond Petroleum. But more and more the talk in Washington is that it’s just too hard to pass a comprehensive bill that would actually get the job done. Wouldn’t it be easier to pass a piecemeal bill that raises the oil spill liability limits for oil companies, provides some money for Gulf Coast restoration, and sets some goals for reducing oil consumption?

These are all worthy measures, and yes, it would be easier to pass a scaled back bill that fails to address the heart of the challenge. But if President Obama accepts such an approach we will be having the same conversation 36 years from now that we had back in 1974 when President Nixon said we will end our dependence on energy imports by the end of the decade.

The fact is, only a bill that includes real, enforceable limits on carbon pollution that drive investments into clean energy technology and infrastructure can break our addiction to oil. A “half-assed” bill, as Senator Lindsey Graham so aptly put it (before he made a politically-driven U-turn), will not do the job because investors are smart enough to recognize the difference between a real commitment and a hortatory one.

I don’t doubt President Obama’s sincerity, and he certainly knows the history of presidents promising, and failing, to deliver real reform (see Robert Gibb’s answer to a question submitted by John of Grand Isle, LA, starting at 11:50 in this video). He also knows how to get big things done. After all, he delivered real health care reform after even a longer list of previous presidents failed, and after it was declared dead by pundits many times.

At the end of the day what the pundits think about President Obama’s oval office speech doesn’t matter. What matters is what he does over the next few weeks. As the November election draws closer, more and more Members of Congress will be tempted to take the easy way out, by passing a bill that does little, while claiming it does a lot. The president, and the public, must not allow them to get away with that this time.

So if Senate leaders don’t bring a comprehensive energy and climate bill to the floor next month, including real limits on carbon pollution, I wish they would just print up some buttons that say Whip Oil Now (WON), declare victory, and go home.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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