Reagan vs. Obama: Not even close on energy policy

Candidate Obama praised Reagan, but President Obama followed Jimmy Carter

“An economy in distress, vast natural resources locked up with no plans to put them to use, and a regulatory regime that inhibits the development of resources and the creation of jobs.” Sound familiar? These words were written by William Perry Pendley, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy and Minerals at the Department of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan. They describe the America that Reagan encountered when he became president in 1981. But, they could just as well be about 2013.

In his new book, Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s battle with environmental extremists and why it matters today, Pendley points to the similarities of the economic climate that both Reagan and Barack Obama had to take on at the start of their presidencies—but their approach to addressing the problems have been very different, as have been the results.

The campaigning Senator Obama had it right. In a January 15, 2008, interview, Obama said: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America … He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. …government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

In the same interview Obama said he shared personal similarities to Reagan. While he does like to compare himself to Reagan (just search: “Obama compares himself to Ronald Reagan”), the contrast on energy policy couldn’t be more stark. Pendley explains that Reagan adhered to the “human exceptionalism paradigm”—which asserted that “human technological ingenuity can continually improve the human situation.” Coming before Reagan, Jimmy Carter embraced an “environmental paradigm”—that placed environmental limits on growth. Carter’s America is the one about which Obama stated: “…we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.” Yet, Obama has followed Carter’s direction, not Reagan’s and the results are Carter’s, not Reagan’s.

“In the two decades preceding his inauguration in 1981,” writes Pendley, “so-called ‘environmentalists’ had erected some imposing obstacles to progress.” As the governor of a western state, Reagan had seen the environmental movement change: “A fervent conservationist and an environmentalist himself, Ronald Reagan believed in being a good steward, but above all he believed in people, who are, after all, part of the environment. From the beginning, the conservation movement held humans at its center. …That focus changed, to Reagan’s great dismay, during his lifetime. People were no longer at the center. …Not only was mankind on a par with the flora and fauna, it was the enemy of creation.”

This shift pushed for adaptation of “scarcity and sacrifice”; a life of “pain and privation lay ahead.” But, Reagan “would have none of this gloom and doom.”

Reagan took office during the worst economy since the great depression. He cut taxes, cut regulations, and cut government. Obama has done the opposite.

Instead of listening to advisors, who urged Reagan to continue Carter’s “momentum of environmental protection while allowing for some easing of regulation,” Reagan called for dramatic changes in the Interior Department’s programs. He believed in “American exceptionalism and in the ability of the American people—if unfettered by burdensome regulations—to improve their lot.”

Reagan made dramatic increases in oil and gas leasing, and resumed leasing of federal coal lands in the West. He believed the oil industry was not a monopoly, that the big discoveries would be made by independent companies, and they would be made by unconventional methods and technology. Pendley states: “The amazing work of the energy industry in discovering, developing, and delivering previously inaccessible oil and gas resources through hydraulic fracturing technology, for example, would not have surprised President Reagan.”

In contrast, Obama believes industry is the “bad guys” and government the “good guys.” Like Carter, Obama adheres to a scarcity model of energy and locks up federal lands. In October 1978, Reagan questioned Carter’s policy: “Why is the government so anxious to lock up this [federal] land? Is it a fear that more [natural gas] strikes will be made?” Today, the oil and gas industry is busy finding more and more available resource—there is no scarcity—on private lands where it works around the limitations to access on federal lands. As Reagan observed, there must be fear that more gas strikes will be made. It is clear, there is no energy shortage, just an access shortage.

Obama doesn’t believe in the technology, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans, Pendley told me. He believes in big government and its regulations. Pendley points out how he’s given the environmentalists a seat at the table where Reagan denied them the moral high ground. When the environmentalists—who for the previous two decades had been cloaked with an aura of inevitability, invincibility, and infallibility—said they “spoke for the planet and the needs of all living things not human,” Reagan responded: he “spoke for the dream of the American people and for the unborn generations to be free and prosperous.”

Reagan had to “revive an American economy reeling from double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, and double-digit interest rates. He knew the economy could not grow without reliable sources of energy. It was clear to Reagan that the economy, energy and foreign policy were inextricably linked.”

His statement, “We win and they lose,” was made in reference to his Cold War strategy. He had a boundless faith in American ingenuity, creativity, and know-how. He had confidence in the free enterprise system and believed the United States would “transcend” the Soviet Union. We did.

Today, we face an economic war and Reagan’s “We win and they lose” strategy is still relevant. The economy, energy, and foreign policy are still “inextricably linked.” The difference is that today, the “they” isn’t the Soviets; it’s the environmentalists. The problem is not from outside, it is from within. If they win, we all lose.

Today, we are ready, once again for a change in “the trajectory of America.” Reflecting on Reagan’s victory, Obama stated that, after four years of Jimmy Carter, the country was ready for a “fundamentally different path.” Similarly, after years under the Obama administration, we must have clarity, optimism, and a return to Reagan’s sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that has been lost.

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About the Author: Marita Noon

Marita Noon

CFACT policy analyst Marita Noon is the author of Energy Freedom.,

  • jameshrust

    Great posting. The failures of the energy policies of President Obama need to be contrasted with successes of President Ronald Reagan. The environmental movement thwarted construction of the Alaskan Pipeline from 1968 to 1973 which made the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo more effective. President Carter followed the lead of the environmental movement in not promoting vigorous development of domestic energy resources. President Reagan changed the direction of energy policy to increase domestic energy production which produced low oil and gas prices in the late 1980s.
    President Obama would like to say he is like President Reagan with successful energy policies. Unfortunately, President Obama is following President Carter by seeking approval from the environmental movement by thwarting domestic fossil fuel production and promoting unreliable, uneconomic renewable energy sources of solar, wind, ethanol from corn, and other biofuels. All of these policies are sending the United States toward economic ruin instead of prosperity for all.
    James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering(ret.)