If there’s one thing you can say about President Obama it’s that he certainly hasn’t given his erstwhile fans on the left a shortage of things to keep scratching their heads over. One of the biggest perennial question marks hanging over his administration has been his failure to lead on clean energy – and not just politically by working a bill, but symbolically by finally fitting the White House with new solar panels to replace the ones that Carter put up and Reagan took down. Of course, while he may be able to blame congressional politics for his lack of follow-through on the policy side of things, there really doesn’t seem to be any clear excuse for his symbolic failure. Why wouldn’t he put solar on his roof? Sure, he hasn’t done much to promote a solar tech revolution, but he certainly likes to talk the stuff up, and he’s has never shied away from doing a photo op at a PV manufacturing plant. So what gives?

Well, for one possible answer let me take you back to a simpler time. The year was 2008, the Democrats had already initiated their retreat on offshore drilling policy, and a stupidly grinning Rudolph Giuliani stood at the podium at the Republican National Convention and uttered the words that would go down as one of the most memorable and moronic political catchphrases of all time – “drill, baby, drill”! The crowd as you may recall reacted with all the bawdy, hootin-and-hollerin enthusiasm of a Jerry Springer audience watching a guest take her top off.  

The sexual connotation of the phrase was definitely not an accident. “Drill, baby, drill” was much more than a juvenile campaign slogan. It was a pretty explicit effort to genderize energy politics. It succinctly described the Republican Party’s perspective on energy production as an inherently macho, dominant activity. For the most part, Republicans tend to see energy as something that should be obtained by brute force – by blowing up mountains, by drilling, or better yet by “extreme” drilling: in the arctic, a mile below the ocean’s surface, in the middle of a war-torn country. That, according to the GOP, is how powerful leaders and powerful countries get their energy; not by passively waiting for the wind to blow or the sun to shine. Only liberal wimps would do that. It even explains why their preferred carbon-free form of energy is nuclear – atoms are after all the most powerfully destructive force we’ve ever gotten our hands on, and the possibility of meltdowns only make things more hardcore.  

Seen from this perspective, Reagan’s decision to rip Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the roof of the White House makes a lot more sense. From Reagan’s point of view, the oil crisis had made America go all soft on energy policy and he was going to change that. Desolarizing the White House wasn’t just a financial decision; it was a powerfully symbolic act. It was Reagan’s way of saying “look out world, the big guns are back in the House now – there’ll be no more passive reception of energy under my watch. We’re going to flex our geopolitical muscles and go out and take all the energy we need by force, if necessary.”

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And herein may lay the true secret to Obama’s reluctance on the solar panels. There’s a good chance he’s just worried that if he goes solar, Fox News and the GOP leadership will try to pin him with their tired caricature of Carter: a weak one-termer who doesn’t have the macho, rigid, unyielding, unthinking, world dominating resolve that Republicans so pride themselves on.  

Well sorry to break it to you Mr. President, but the right is already doing that anyway. And you’re not going to escape the sophomoric taunting by trying to hide from the bullies. You deal with bullies by standing up to them. You’ve got to be ready with some snappy comebacks to shut those morons down: tell them that real leaders approach energy policy with their brains, not with their drill bits. Tell them that powerful countries don’t have to abuse their Mother, or steal their children’s future to get their energy. Use your own bully pulpit to let everyone know that despite all their drill-baby-drill macho posturing conservatives are just covering up for their impotent energy platform.

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Putting those solar panels back on the White House and making a big show of it would be a good way to get started. Hold a press conference up on the White House roof in front of a glistening array of ready-to-be installed solar panels. Tell the nation that you’re ready to really get to work on clean energy and climate change, then roll up your sleeves for the cameras and help fit a panel in place. Heck, as an added up-yours to the conservative hecklers, bring President Carter along – show them that you’re not afraid to stand beside him, or to stand behind his prescient approach to energy policy.

And if you do it this October 10th – the day of 350.org’s Global Work Party – a coalition of more than a dozen fantastic organizations from the DC area will be there to get your back. We’re already planning on showing up at your place that day with a gift of solar panels, and we’ve already invited President Carter. All you have to do is join us to show the bullies you’re not going to take it anymore.

Of course, once you’ve gotten to work symbolically, you’ll have to get to work for real – championing strong climate policies. But taking a tough, principled stance on energy has got to start with the solar panels. Carter knew it. Regan knew it. It’s high time you figured it out too. Because if you can’t even mange symbolic energy leadership, it’s hard to imagine where you’ll ever find the courage to lead on the issue for real.