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Hot Air and Gas

If one wants an immediate sense of the different kind of politics Barack Obama is offering, look no further than the recent discussion of gas prices in the campaign.  At a time when the Obama campaign has been hurt by the comments of Jeremiah Wright, when it would seem, according to the political logic that prevails in Washington, to turn to political pandering on the question of high gas prices in order to win a few votes in the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Obama has opted instead to speak the difficult truth to the American people about the long term solution to the problem of rising gas prices.

Clinton and McCain have opted to respond to what is palpably the worst energy crisis we have experienced in a generation by pandering.  They both want a national holiday on the gas 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax for the summer. Thomas Friedman has rightly called this an idea “so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away.”  Friedman concludes his article by calling for a mature, sustained and serious response to this crisis: 

The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way.

When Obama launched his campaign on February 10th, 2007, he diagnosed the problem with the sort of politics McCain and Clinton have perfected.  He recognizes that the politics of pandering is completely ineffective in dealing with the sort of energy crisis we now face.  He said then that we are unable to deal with our many problems because of a failed, immature politics: 

What has stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.

So this week, when faced with a pastor who is actively sabotaging his candidacy, he remained true to himself, to his message that the immature, posturing and pandering politics of old must be replaced by a more mature, reflective, honest politics of responsibility.  This week, in the face of calls by McCain and Clinton for a short term narcotic for a long term addiction, Obama responded courageously:

This is the problem with Washington. We are facing a situation where oil prices could hit $200 a barrel. Oil companies like Shell and BP just reported record profits for the quarter. And we’re arguing over a gimmick that would save you half a tank of gas over the course of the entire summer so that everyone in Washington can pat themselves on the back and say that they did something. 

Well let me tell you–this isn’t an idea designed to get you through the summer, it’s designed to get them through an election. The easiest thing in the world for a politician to do is to tell you exactly what you want to hear. But if we want to finally solve the challenges we’re facing right now, we need to tell the American people what they need to hear. We need to tell the truth.  (See, The Stump on this.)

Gas prices need to go even higher.  Already, people are beginning to change their habits and practices in the face of higher prices.  The New York Times today reported that people are flocking to smaller cars in the face of higher gas prices.  It seems that a solution to the problem is possible only when enough of us feel the concrete effects of our addiction to gas.

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