The Public Eye: Obama’s Oil Opportunity

By Bob Burnett
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:41:00 AM

It’s the price of oil, stupid! The most recent Gallup Poll shows three issues dominating the 2008 presidential election: “energy, including gas prices,” “the economy,” and “the situation in Iraq.” Oil connects these concerns and also the prospect of global climate change. To win in November, Barack Obama has to focus on America’s oil problem. 

Over the past year, gasoline prices have skyrocketed throughout the United States—in Northern California the price of a gallon of gas is close to $5, up 37 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household now spends more than one sixth of its annual expenditures on transportation, and this percentage is rapidly increasing, forcing families to forgo items like health care in order to fill their tanks. 

The rapid increase in the cost of petroleum is a key component in America’s economic downturn. It affects the price of food—13 percent of the typical family’s annual expenditures—because most foodstuffs have to be transported long distances from the farm to the consumer. And it dramatically impacts housing expenses—33 percent of our average annual expenditures—that were already on the rise because of tightening credit markets. Where it was once convenient to live in suburban communities, because housing prices were lower than in urban centers, that’s no longer the case, since the cost of commuting has become prohibitive. Unfortunately, the influx of former long-distance commuters, forced by rising transportation costs to return to the inner city, is driving metropolitan housing prices farther up. 

The meteoric rise of gasoline prices is another indication Americans are stuck in an unsustainable lifestyle. We consume 21 million barrels of oil per day, but produce only five million. And the situation is only going to get worse, as we use 25 percent of the world’s oil supply but possess only 3 percent of the reserves. 

While most Americans understand the connection between rising oil prices and our deteriorating economy, for many the relationship between oil and Iraq has remained opaque. Nonetheless, as the war has dragged on, gasoline prices have more than doubled—in California, just before the war began, the average price for a gallon of gas was $1.72; now it is $4.46. Many observers believe the U.S. subjugation contributed to the rising cost of petroleum because it disrupted the supply of Iraqi crude and threatened supplies from neighboring oil states. Rather than the occupation paying for itself because of the availability of cheap Iraqi oil, as the Bush administration claimed in 2003, it has cost more than half a trillion dollars with no end in sight. 

For all these reasons, Senator Obama must make oil the cornerstone issue of his campaign. First, he has to get the attention of panicky voters overwhelmed by rising gasoline prices and desperate for a quick fix. He should declare unequivocally that America’s problem is an addiction: we’ve developed an unsustainable dependence on oil. His message should be: we’re all in this together, because we’re a nation of petroleum addicts. 

Second, Obama has to differentiate his solutions from John McCain’s slapdash proposals. Obama should acknowledge there is no quick fix for the problems of those who are totally dependent upon their cars or trucks. America can’t drill its way out of our oil shortage, and short-term palliatives, such as suspending the gasoline tax or strong-arming Saudis to increase production, aren’t the answer. 

Third, he must emphasize conservation. In 2001, Vice President Cheney quipped, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Obama has to repudiate this thinking— identify it as a Bush administration leadership failure—and state that kicking our oil addiction requires a national commitment to conservation and energy efficiency. He should ask all Americans to make personal sacrifices for the common good—something George Bush failed to do after 9/11. 

Fourth, Obama has to prescribe a common-sense economic plan to provide immediate relief for America’s working families. He has proposed a supplemental economic stimulus package that would provide a host of benefits for those overwhelmed by transportation costs. Now he has to make these more attractive than McCain’s “no gas tax” alternative. 

Fifth, Obama must provide a vision of a new America by showing the electorate the path to energy independence, a future without oil. He has proposed a comprehensive strategy for a clean energy future that would invest $150 billion over 10 years in alternative technology including “ the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure,” “commercialization of plug-in hybrids,” and “development of commercial-scale renewable energy.” 

Finally, Barack Obama has to infuse his “let’s kick the oil habit” sermon with galvanizing emotion, turn it into a moral crusade that all Americans can get behind. He understands our oil problems and has proposed a workable short-term plan and long-term strategy, but so far this hasn’t captured voters’ imagination. To take advantage of his oil opportunity, Obama must use his rhetorical skills to inspire Americans to work together for a sustainable future. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at