I’ve had a few pundit types ask me what the deal is with the kerfuffle over the tire gauge. What’s the attack here on Obama? That pumping your tires is elitist? That it’s unbefitting a commander in chief to recommend auto maintenance?

Apparently Republican attacks have become so baroque that they are now impossible for anyone outside the Republican base to decode. So here’s my take on it.

The short answer is that there’s a much bigger fight getting started here.

It’s an article of faith among greens that "there is no silver bullet — what we need is silver buckshot." In other words, we’re not going to be able to simply replace the big, highly concentrated, brute-force industrial energy system that fossils built. We’re going to have to produce, distribute, and use energy in a much smarter way, and that means doing thousands of little things (like, in the area of transportation, inflating our tires, carpooling, moving to a four-day work week, telecommuting, offering a crusher credit, pay-as-you-drive car insurance, etc.). These things will buffer our shift to a system with new sources (clean electricity) and new techniques (plug-in hybrids, public transit, and transit-oriented development).

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Problem is, the public doesn’t really get that. They are instinctively suspicious of the lots-of-little-things demand-side approach, and instinctively attracted to the big, macho, stick-your-derrick-in-it supply-side approach.

Obama is the first political figure since Carter to understand the energy efficiency and conservation approach and actually try to present it to the American people. Republicans want to nip it in the bud — that’s why they are so aggressively jumping on the tire gauge thing. They want to make it seem like a small and silly response to a very big problem. But all the things we need to do will seem small and silly in isolation; it’s the portfolio approach that will work. If the truth about efficiency gets out — how much cheaper it is than new oil, how many more jobs it creates, how much more it does for the domestic economy — Republicans are well and truly screwed.

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This is the key energy battle of the next few years, and this is the first shot fired. Good for Obama for standing up to it.

(See also Michael Grunwald.)