10/24/2012 03:04 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Romney & Obama: Where's the Inspiration?

Most of us watched the third and final debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.

Flashback 50-plus years ago: We have all heard the clear voice over the grainy black-and-white video of President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Further, he said, "... in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon -- if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

With these few words, it inspired our country to innovate. The inspiration was a single goal. And the inspiration was fueled by a competitive threat from the Soviet Union.

Part of what catalyzes people and a nation is a common enemy.

So, let's return to the present day and the third of these debates. We just witnessed a myopic conversation focused on some of America's common enemies: Iran, China, and possibly Russia. And, then we had an overwhelming focus on one ally: Israel, as Romney and Obama battle for the support of Jewish Americans (disregard the fact that every president has been a supporter of Israel).

What has been missing is a focus on two common enemies of the world: carbon and poverty.
I will focus this post on the common enemy: carbon.

Many of us might agree that after the debates neither the president nor the governor has catalyzed America to be inspired about anything.

Yet, we just witnessed the sun setting on the inspiration of a previous generation when the space shuttles Endeavor and Discovery were retired after decades of service. As many stood on rooftops and watched the final flight, no one asked: "What's our next frontier?"

Our inspiration on the energy front has been the common enemy of "Middle East" oil. Yet, we have had fleeting moments of inspiration since the '60s.

During the 1970s, oil embargoes were so painful in the U.S. that we created the Department of Energy and spent an extraordinary amount of money to find solutions to oil independence. We started research to create two types of solutions -- clean electricity and clean transportation fuels. Further, Amory Lovins wrote an influential piece, "Energy Strategy, The Road Not Taken," in 1976 in Foreign Affairs. He reminded us we could use energy more efficiently: something we still have yet to optimize.

As we were coming of age, the Berlin Wall came down with a new, real inspiration: globalization. The Cold War ended opening the creation of a new world order.

Then the first Gulf War reminded us of the importance of energy. The war was primarily over how Iraq and Kuwait shared a common oil resource on their border. Oil prices spiked to more than $32 per barrel and then candidate Bill Clinton was declaring that we needed to do something about this tax on every American family. He would raise CAFE standards once he became president and force automakers to implement fuel efficiency technologies they had kept on the shelf.

With oil back down to $20 per barrel once he became president, he abandoned that strategy and decided instead to start the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles: a multi-billion investment in new technologies to get us to a 100-mpg vehicle.

In the '90s, the dot-com boom was just starting and people saw extraordinary opportunity in fast moving information flows and e-commerce. Energy prices now hit all time lows in both electricity and transportation fuels. The World Wide Web now fascinated the world.

Then in the 2000s came 9/11; the world was suddenly not as safe as we thought.

On the energy front, President George Bush was one of our best presidents ever. He and Vice President Dick Cheney created an energy plan. This energy plan gave investors a direction in life. Oil prices spiked due to peak conventional oil and suddenly we needed to find more energy domestically -- enter the Energy Policy Act of 2005, 2007 and 2008. The clean energy revolution was born.

Then in 2008, candidate Barack Obama gave a big, booming speech to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party. He was the first president ever to announce a timeline: In ten years, we will find a way to get ourselves off of Middle East oil. And he might deliver. Under his administration he has increased CAFE standards twice and promoted more oil and gas drilling that at any time since Dallas first went on the air in the 1970s. Today, most analysts believe that finding four million barrels a day by 2020 in savings and local oil production is possible and in fact likely.

The challenge with our efforts now is twofold: First, we are not facing an omnipresent global enemy -- carbon. In fact, it has been swept under the rug.

Second, we are not deploying American innovations at scale to create a new global economy. We have doubled the deployment of renewable electricity and increased to more than $3 billion the amount of money EXIM and OPIC are providing to American exports, but neither is enough to win the battle against carbon.

The United States has always been able to face a common enemy, deploy resources, defeat the enemy and stimulate an economy. That was the case in WWII, and the Cold War space race.
But, when an enemy is outflanking us and quietly plotting, we are caught off-guard. Perhaps this was the case during 9/11. al-Qaeda found a way to shake our very core. We refocused our existing technologies, and enhanced them to have a new level of intelligence and counter intelligence.

Now, we have an enemy that we cannot see, smell or touch: carbon. Yet we have the technologies to battle it before it is too late. By deploying them, we can stimulate economic growth, and -- yes become energy independent without possible side effects of technologies like fracking.

I wish one of the candidates could inspire us.