This summer, President Obama can accomplish what 40 years of presidents couldn’t

Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush. They differed in political philosophy, the proper role of government and national priorities – except for one thing. Every president in the last 40 years identified the existential threat to U.S. security of relying on foreign countries for energy and called for the United States to become energy-independent. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

(My organization, Environmental Defense Fund, has put together great video showing a montage of these commitments.) 

The awareness of this threat began in the ’70s with the Middle East oil embargo. Faced with blocks-long lines at gas stations and bizarre gas-hoarding schemes, President Richard Nixon launched “Project Independence” with a clarion challenge to Americans: “Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes and to keep our transportation moving.”

Nixon knew what Ford, Carter, Reagan and two Bush presidents also came to know: America’s dependence on fossil fuel from other parts of the world threatens our national security, hampers economic growth and clouds our country’s future prosperity. Despite understanding the problem and decrying it, those presidents were unable to solve it. Every day of 2010, Americans will ship about $1 billion to other countries to buy oil.  These billions strengthen regimes that repress their citizens and are hostile to our country.  

The only president in the last 40 years who has not failed to move America toward energy independence is Barack Obama. He still has the chance to make history. Debate over climate change shouldn’t cloud the crystal clear necessity of a federal energy and climate bill that will, at last, move the United States from weakness to strength as we reduce and end our dependence on foreign oil.

Now is the time for President Obama to transcend the failures of past presidents. To do so, he must personally take the lead on this issue–and, as he did with health care reform–drive energy reform over the finish line in Congress.

In the dog days of summer, our legislators are returning to Washington to get down to business with both eyes on November’s potentially epochal election. What could be more patriotic after Independence Day than to pass landmark energy and climate legislation that will strengthen our country, our economy and our leadership in the world?

That stance may sound too optimistic at this political hour. Some pundits carp that passing energy and climate legislation this summer will be “too hard,” “impossible,” “it’s not going to happen.” They were saying the same things about health care reform a scant few weeks before that bill’s historic passage. The difference-maker, if you listen to the insiders: President Obama’s personal involvement. 

Obama set out to be a transformational president. Answering four decades of exhortations from his Oval Office predecessors, Obama can now do for American energy independence what he did for American health care reform: lead the way and show our legislators how to make history while doing their patriotic duty.

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