This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.


An old friend of mine used to say that at a certain stage in political campaigns, dead cats start flying through the air. I’ve never understood what he meant by that, but I think the cat-flinging has begun.

tire gaugeBoth candidates are doing their share, but one exchange deserves special analysis: The attack against Barack Obama’s comment about tire gauges. Responding to a question, Obama made the point that acts of conservation by individual Americans can have an impact on rising oil prices. He used tire pressure maintenance as an example.

The GOP has had a field day with that one, suggesting that it’s the most substantive answer Obama has offered to deal with the oil crises. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a prospective GOP running mate, joined in the fun, using a tire gauge as a prop at a campaign event. In facetious recognition of Obama’s 47th birthday, GOPers’ staff passed out tire pressure gauges, then announced it would sell “Obama Energy Plan” gauges for $25 each. Now, you can get them on eBay.

But if conservatives think they’re putting pressure on Obama, they would be wise to gauge the risk. His joke could go flat.

Watch for Obama’s campaign to counterpunch by comparing his opponent to another prominent Republican who belittled the value of energy conservation — Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2001 called energy efficiency a “personal virtue” rather than an important component of national energy policy. That comment exposed the crude oil that runs through Cheney’s veins and through the Bush Administration’s energy policy. The Obama people are probably editing their McCain = Cheney ad right now.

Because there’s little to watch on television due to the Olympics, some voters might be encouraged to compare McCain’s energy platform with Obama’s. They will find that the Senator from Illinois has a far more detailed, more substantive, more visionary and more revolutionary set of energy proposals than the Senator from Arizona. Our problem-ridden economy suggests that revolutionary approaches to energy and security are just what America needs. As someone once said, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. By that definition, calling for lots more oil drilling is crazy, particularly from candidates who are committed to reducing America’s contribution to climate change.

Most significantly, the tire gauge incident may show us an important difference in the two candidates’ leadership styles. Obama’s point was that individual Americans can be an important part of the solution to our energy problems. And he’s correct.

One of the reasons we remain vulnerable to oil shocks 30 years after the embargoes of the 1970s is that politicians are reluctant to call upon us Americans to make an adjustment in our behaviors or lifestyles. Jimmy Carter tried that and it didn’t work out so well. Ever since, it seems, the politicians’ motto has been “ask what your country can do for you, not what you can do for your country.”

Nevertheless, oil prices have been going down lately because individual Americans got smart and did the right things. We drove 10 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than we did in May 2007. That’s the equivalent of more than 100 trips to the sun (or 50 if you want to come back). We’re buying fewer big trucks and more efficient cars. We’re using more mass transit. Some of us, including Republicans under the cloak of darkness, may even be checking our tire pressure.

For the past seven years, the Bush Administration has been opening up new land and issuing new leases to oil companies as fast as bureaucrats can move the paper. That hasn’t prevented oil from shooting to more than $140 a barrel or gasoline to more than $4 a gallon.

The fact is, the recent actions of individual Americans appear to have been pretty effective. We all should feel empowered by that. It turns out that the efficiency gurus are correct: energy efficiency and conservation aren’t the only things we need to do, but they’re the cheapest and quickest ways to deal with the insecurities inherent in our dependence on oil and gas.

I hate to take the air out of McCain’s tires, but I find it refreshing that a national leader is willing to suggest that we get up out of our chairs, go out to the garage, pick up our pressure gauges and get involved in solving the energy crises. That’s people power. That’s teamwork. That’s leadership. Both candidates now should be urging consumers to keep up the good work, even though gasoline has dipped below $4 again.

In fact, in his next energy speech, Obama should follow his tire gauge act with a caulking gun. Despite the recent drop in oil and natural gas prices, energy experts predict that the cost of home heating this winter will be the next big energy shock, and that’s right around the corner.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.