Gas Prices: Lessons From The Carter Years In response to the rising cost of home heating oil, President Jimmy Carter suggested Americans wear a sweater and turn down the thermostat. That message, political consultant Tad Devine says, did not go over well. What plays better, he says, is empathy — the path President Obama seems to be taking.
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Gas Prices: Lessons From The Carter Years

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Gas Prices: Lessons From The Carter Years

Gas Prices: Lessons From The Carter Years

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Joining us now is Democratic political strategist Tad Devine. Welcome to our program.

Mr. TAD DEVINE (Democratic Political Strategist): Nice to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk for a minute about why these kinds of things happen and what sort of response that politicians need to have to deal with the gas price crisis.

President Obama has announced a new gas task force, which he says is to root out fraud and manipulation in oil and gas markets that might affect prices. What do you think this is? Is this mostly theater? Could this change anything?

Mr. DEVINE: Well, I think it's evidence that the president wants to pick sides in this. And the side that he's going to pick is the side of the consumers and not oil companies, Wall Street, speculators. And it's, I think, potentially a very powerful signal.

But gas prices can undermine a presidency. It's such a visible thing in our lives. I mean, there's not another commodity, I think, that you drive by outside a supermarket or another place where you see the actual price of the commodity and it's visible to everyone. And now, people are so aware of how much it cost and how quickly it's rising.

And I think the impact is real. And we're seeing it right now. The New York Times/CBS poll that came out that basically said the wrong track number now has gone back up to 70 in this country.

And if you're the president of the United States and you've got a country with 70 percent wrong track, less than 30 percent of the people think we're heading in the right direction, you're reelection is endangered. And so this gas issue is a real one. President Obama realizes that he must deal with it, and I think that's what he's doing right now.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you were a young sprout working in the Carter administration. President Carter is always the president who comes to mind when you think about gas prices sinking a campaign. Now, President Carter tried to handle this thing too.

Mr. DEVINE: Well, I think you can see, if you look back at President Carter in the way he dealt with the issue of gas prices and the way it's being dealt with today, two very different approaches, I think, politically.

President Carter looked at it - and he had looked at the energy issue throughout the course of his presidency and gave several speeches about it -and essentially decided...

WERTHEIMER: He kept trying to encourage the nation to move to alternate sources of energy.

Mr. DEVINE: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: He created the Energy Department. He did a lot of things about energy.

Mr. DEVINE: He did a lot of substantive things and he did a lot of other things that people remember, like wearing a sweater and turning down the thermostat, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVINE: And essentially, what happened in the midst of that gas crisis in the mid-1979 was that President Carter gave maybe the most important speech of his presidency, where he basically said to people, listen, we've got to deal with these issues. As a crisis of confidence in this country, we got to take it on. And I think people saw in him someone who was not on their side. When it came to rising gas prices, for example, he said, listen, the problem is the American people using too much petroleum. We're too reliant on it. We got to do something about it. We got to change our ways.

I think what President Obama is doing today is saying, I'm going to stand on the side of people. That's why he did what he did by announcing there'd be a task force to look into whether or not there was fraud or manipulation in the gas prices. There's very little a president can do, but they can pick sides. President Obama has done it, and I think he's done it in the fundamentally different way than President Carter did.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in other years when we thought that the price of a barrel of oil was going to, you know, hit 50, hit 90, hit 100, now it's at over 125, that it would remain high forever. But then, generally, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia and occasionally Nigeria, would relent and increase their supplies, the price would go down and all of a sudden we'd be back in the neighborhood of $2 gas.

Do you think that the revolutionary effort in Libya and all of the things that are going on in the Middle East right now, does that mean that OPEC is not going to save our bacon once again?

Mr. DEVINE: I think that's part of it. There's also growing demand around the world for petroleum products. I mean, China, India, these economies, which are emerging as gigantic, competitive economies, are going to rely on petroleum as a principal source of energy.

And as a result of that competition, I don't think there is going to be pressure for them to cut the price. There's going to be pressure for them to raise the price. So we're really in a fix here. Either we're going to change our ways, which is what President Obama is advocating and move our...

WERTHEIMER: And other presidents (unintelligible).

Mr. DEVINE: And other presidents. And sure, president, I mean, listen, I don't think anybody talk about energy more than Jimmy Carter, okay? He tried to make it a centerpiece of his presidency, and it went nowhere.

And frankly, energy policy, you know, hasn't evolved much in the last three decades, and it's really going to be an issue in this presidential campaign that Obama has to deal with. And I think if he deals with it by convincing people that he's done everything he possibly could, then it will not be something that sinks him.

WERTHEIMER: Tad Devine is a political consultant with the firm of Devine Mulvey. He joined us in our studio.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. DEVINE: Good to be with you.

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