Jon Stewart’s Stinging Rebuke of Presidential Promises to Get off Oil

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future

Jon Stewart fired one of his more brilliant salvos last night, synthesizing 40 years of political posturing around energy independence and America’s addiction to foreign oil in just under eight minutes of pointed satire. Using President Obama’s Oval Office speech on Tuesday, where he urged a new energy future, Stewart skewered his rhetoric by playing clips from the past seven presidents, dating to Nixon, as they also pledged to get us off oil.

As he so often does, Stewart offers purer critique of the issue with a few short video clips and montages than the whole of the punditocracy blabbering on in other media.

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil are numbered," said President Obama. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

"I believe I can fly…" Stewart breaks in, very off key, before continuing, "On non-petroleum based technology… or giant magnets or hamsters running simultaneously.. some other type of energy source we haven’t …"

Of course, Obama’s call to arms is virtually identical to one given by George W. Bush in 2006, and Clinton in 2000, Pappy Bush in 1988 and on down the line to 1974, when Nixon exclaimed, "We will break the back of the energy crisis. We will lay the foundation for our future capacity to meet America’s energy needs from America’s own resources."

All the presidents also lay out technology fixes, alternative fuels (love Carter’s "gasahol"), and aggressive timelines that become somewhat less aggressive with each successive president.

And of all the ironies, as Stewart pointed out in his bit, despite Nixon’s reviled past and suspect ethics, he was one of the few presidents to give us meaningful environmental protections by establishing the EPA and signing the Clean Water Act. With the others at the helm, we’ve done nothing to abate our consumption of oil, nor meaningfully reduce our over-reliance on driving.

American presidents have talked the energy independence talk for four decades now, but we continue to drive the drive without changing our ways. I don’t know if we will ever elect to move away from fossil fuels affirmatively, or if we will be forced to innovate when the miracle of oil energy dries up or destroys the ecosystems we love and need, but I find it hard to be optimistic.

Anyone else as affected by this clip as me?

  • Thanks for writing this up and linking the clip. I’m glad I stayed up last night and watched. He did an amazing job bringing it all home. I don’t think I’ll bother watching Obama’s speech because it’s all the same talk.

    I also find it hard to be optimistic. Money talks, so until we start seeing the true cost of oil or just flat run out of the cheap stuff (latter probably occurring first) it’ll be business as usual.

  • It is all of a piece with the political culture that emerged in the 1970s of anti-tax, anti-government nonsense. I can vote to cut property taxes and expect government to continue to provide services. It is an insular and selfish mind-set. Ronald Reagan paid for his defense buildup by cancelling meaningful alternative energy research. So even if you buy into the cold war was ended by such actions, in the long run was it a good bargain?

    The Tea Party types rant against the consequences of the short sighted policies they and their ilk mostly fostered. And much nonsense gets far too much play in the media drowning out reason and the adults who are slowly finally doing pushback to 30 years of failed dogma.

  • Your assessment – “As he so often does, Stewart offers purer critique of the issue with a few short video clips and montages than the whole of the punditocracy blabbering on in other media.” says it all.

    I truly am grateful we have Jon Stewart to deliver.

  • Mark Karnowski

    The 55 mph national speed limit, designed to cut down on gasoline consumption by having vehicles drive at their most fuel-efficient speeds, was also enacted during the Nixon administration.

  • Even all that rhetoric from the past presidents still seems to lack any acknowledgement of the single most abundant and underused energy resource – human power (biking and walking). Unfortunately, the reserves are all stored up within the bodies of the American people (aka obesity), just waiting to be tapped. Drill, baby, drill!

    P.S. More power to Jon Stewart! (daily viewer here)

  • HF

    For the record, this whole conversation is far more than four decades old. Viz. Theodore Roosevelt, 1908: “We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.” Quoted in Robert Pogue Harrison, “The Ecstasy of John Muir,” NYRB, March 12, 2009

  • skd

    Jon Stewart missed the mark. The problem isn’t the last eight presidents. It is the petroleum economy run by the oil companies and their political influence. How do you fight against the billions of dollars from the oil companies? Our democracy is joke. Our government is bought and paid for by large corporations including the oil companies. We are not free to change our oil dependency. We are slaves to it. The oil companies don’t want us to find an alternative. If Jon Stewart really had balls, he would slam the oil companies and the false democracy that they have set up and supported for the past 35 years.

  • Very nice

  • vnm

    Nixon also created Amtrak.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Testify John.

    But be advised that the one President who actually proposed measures that would have required meaningful sacrifice, Jimmy Carter, was turned out of office for it after failing to even come close to getting it through Congress with his own party in charge.

    That is the lesson our federal politicians, gutless trolls all, remember. The problem hasn’t always been the President.

    Here is the speech Carter made just before he proposed his program.

  • Glenn

    Great clip!!! classic America of the last 40 years..all talk and no results
    We have ony ourselfs to blame..The mob wants cheap gas no matter the damage or cost to the overall long term health of the we are trapped..We have all the sprall and 4 and 5 car familes. Only a European level of gas tax would bring a real change with of course all the screaming from the far right

  • No politician can publicly articulate the true solution to the problem, which is not to find alternative sources of energy, but to adjust the American lifestyle so as to not revolve around consuming massive amounts of energy.

    When you say the solution is to “find alternative sources,” you are telling the average citizens, “Sit back and keep living the same lifestyle, and wait for the scientists, governments, and corporations to fix the problem for you.” This is obviously what the American people want to hear, not “Have you ever considered WALKING to the store to purchase your milk; or if that’s not possible where you live now, next time you have to move for one reason or another, perhaps consider moving to a neighborhood where you CAN walk to the store to purchase milk?”

    The caption under Obama’s picture on the front page of yesterday’s print edition of the NY times, with the articles about his oval office speech and whatnot, read something along the lines of: “An entire lifestyle is at risk here.”

    GOOD! This lifestyle needs to end ASAP! Did anybody ever stand up and defend the lifestyle which was put at risk (and subsequently harmed, if not outright eliminated, in many places) by redesigning our cities and towns for automobiles back in the 1960’s?

  • My reaction: it is cheap cynicism on Jon Stewart’s part.

    The difference is that the world realizes now that there is a much bigger issue at stake than American energy independence. Dozen’s of nations pledged at Copenhagen to deal with their greenhouse gas emissions. Obama pledged to cut American emissions 80% by 2050, which would reduce our petroleum use dramatically.

    The House passed Waxman-Markey, which would have kept Obama’s pledge to cut emissions 80% by 2050. People can criticize this bill, but it is clearly would be more effective at reducing petroleum use than any law that the US has ever passed.

    Kerry-Lieberman is a much weaker companion bill in the Senate, but it is still strong enough to keep Obama’s pledge and let the world come to an agreement to limit global warming.

    But K-L probably does not have enough votes to pass. A couple of weeks ago, Obama said that it did not have the votes now, but he would get the votes. But in this latest speech on energy, he did not mention climate – which probably means that the votes aren’t there to pass K-L and that climate legislation will be deferred for years.

    Stewart could help get this bill passed by ridiculing the Republicans who are blocking it in the Senate. Instead, by ridiculing Obama, he is making it even less likely that we will pass climate legislation.

    It is idiotic to equate earlier efforts to gain energy independence from OPEC with current efforts to control global warming, because there is widespread scientific consensus and public recognition that global warming is far more dangerous. But it is an easy way to get cheap laughs.

  • Gweezer

    I love this clip! So much common sense in it! Yes, it’s a little over the top here or there, but it really does make the statement that we’ve been saying the same thing for decades and not doing much of anything of substance. Yes, we’ve gotten concerned each time when the economy was down, but when it picks up again, we kind of forget that there is a problem because real change would require sacrifice by all…and honestly not too many people want to sacrifice for more than a few months. They look around and see others living it up and figure why in the world they are sacrificing. Like sometimes we hear about conserving water and we try to do our part…and then we drive around the block where they are flushing a hydrant and spilling out thousands of gallons of water…more than the whole block could conserve in a month.

    I do believe in conservation, but most non-tree hugger-type people only do it if there is a tangible benefit that they can see.

    For example, rather than fall prey to the media and government-induced push to buy a new car, I recently fixed up my old one. Several hundred bucks worth of parts and a ton of elbow grease later, I have a fully licensed, insured, and inspected used car that is fully paid for and passes emissions with flying colors. It ain’t the prettiest or the fastest, and is certainly not fancy, but this early 90s Saturn gets nearly 30MPG all around and is an automatic to boot. This is my latest contribution to the environment, a contribution made with time and effort and a little money but that will pay dividends for me and all.

    I’m no mechanic, but sometimes people need to just say screw the hype and oneupmanship and learn how to do things themselves and then do it. Buy a Haynes manual and learn to do something yourself. And guys, your lady really likes a man who can do things besides play on Facebook or on the WII. Too many guys are becoming wusses.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I want to ride a bike with Jon Stewart and put him in a Streetfilm. He’d be an excellent profile.

  • Michelle

    For the sake of comedy, Jon Stewart lumped all 8 presidents together, but what most of them were referring to was our dependence on FOREIGN OIL! They were saying we need to end our dependence on FOREIGN OIL, which meant that they supported DRILL BABY DRILL off of our own coasts and and sensitive habitats. So I think that Obama is the closest one since Teddy Roosevelt who wants to end our petroleum fossil fuel addiction, not just foreign oil addiction.

  • Barbara Gillette

    Carter put in solar panels on the White House Roof but Reagan pulled them off. Just another tidbit of info.

  • Worse than “drill baby drill,” Carter wanted to ramp up an industry to produce synthetic petroleum out of coal. Because of all the processing involved, these “synfuels” would have caused twice as much CO2 emissions per gallon as ordinary petroleum.

    The world is lucky that oil prices went down in the 1980s and made synfuels uneconomically. If Carter’s plan for “energy independence” had gone very far, global warming would be much worse than it is.

  • @Charles I completely agree with you on synfuels (and we have much the same issue today with biofuels). But I think it is completely fair for Stuart to be holding Obama accountable, he who just two months ago was about to open up more offshore drilling.

    I don’t think you can excuse all the 20th century presidents either just because they didn’t have the same knowledge of climate change. Were funding inhuman regimes and sparking wars not good enough reasons to get off of oil then? Or the particulate pollution that they knew full well the dangers of even back then?

    And indeed do you think this feels like a more urgent moment on oil policy to the average American than 1973 did?

    I agree that climate change legislation is essential, but so far proposed legislation, including Waxman-Markey, has a huge focus on manufacturing and will come nowhere near fully addressing our oil problem. Indeed as long as moving to electric vehicles means moving from oil to coal for most Americans you aren’t going to see a big push on the transportation sector from the climate change front.

    The real answer is a carbon tax, which would address the issue far more effectively than cap-and-trade, and would force the transportation sector to do their part as well, as better price information started to flow when both oil and coal-powered electricity became more expensive.

  • Steve, a carbon tax would help a lot to cut coal power use, but not to cut car use. The consensus carbon tax estimate, $110/ton, translates to a tax on gas of about $1/gallon. Clearly, gas taxes need to go much further up to reduce transportation emissions; the issue is that gas has so many other externalities – military protection, the social cost of sprawl, air pollution – that a $1/gal tax would just mitigate those externalities slightly. What’s needed here is full mitigation of all externalities, which means, at a minimum, a tax of about $1/gal for carbon, $2-3/gal for air pollution, and $2-3/gal for military protection of oil sources. The sprawl problem should be simultaneously mitigated with a tax on cars and on greenfield development.

  • I completely agree that a carbon tax only addresses one part of the issue of full-cost pricing on oil. Just wanted to point out within the framework of climate change that cap-and-trade does next to nothing about oil use in transportation, while a carbon tax could have a significant beneficial impact. Certainly further taxes on car emissions are needed on top of the carbon tax to cover all the other externalities of pollution beyond just climate change.

    But I’d rather we scap that military protection tax and have the military stay out of oil wars in the first place!

  • Al

    A carbon tax may not be the be-all and end-all, but it would be a significant step toward energy independence. In comparison, Waxman-Markey is pathetic. 20% renewable by 2020? Oh, FANTASTIC. It just gives rise to creative accounting to allow people they’ve met targets, and creative lobbying to change them.

    There’s one thing that’ll work: a gas/carbon tax. When using a ton of energy is expensive, creative people will find ways to use less. Otherwise it’s all just whining and trying to guilt people into doing the right thing: “yes, it’s convenient for you to drive everywhere and live in deep suburbia, but just think of the country’s long-term energy security! You must make sacrifices!” Like that sort of talk has ever convinced anyone. Or, worse yet, “it’s convenient for you but for the sake of energy security we’ve passed laws to stop you from doing what you want to do.” Tax it and let people make the decisions to improve their own lives, and you’ll have your energy security before you know it.

  • Al

    CORRECTION: “to allow people to pretend they’ve met targets”

  • mike

    Brilliant. We need to rely on guy’s like this instead of the suits!

  • RL

    The EPA has caused more economic pain than anything else in the government. This country’s energy needs have been hampered by silly regulations that place animal lives over human lives. Looks what’s going on in the central valley in CA over a damn minnow. Yeah, let’s not grow food for people and provide jobs and good livings for people. Yeah, the fish rules! Stupid liberals. Head explodes in five seconds. 5,4,3,2,1……. Pssssst, there’s is no global warming either so your precious carbon tax is based on false reality.

  • Enjoyed the review of the Eight President’s energy dependence intentions.

    24 years ago I proposed a NESP to Reagan and have offered it to every President since, with no takers. The problem is the government does not have a viable energy model. Neither does the media or industry. I have been in the energy industry for 50 years, with the last 37 years as a very, very independent energy consultant.

    This time I think I know how to get this policy accepted. I’m going to require a shakedown.


  • SteveS: It is not a matter of blaming or excusing the last 8 presidents, and it is not a matter of saying that we shouldn’t criticize Obama’s position on off-shore drilling.

    My point is simply that the situation is very different now than it was under the earlier presidents who did not reduce our oil dependency, because there is now widespread recognition that global warming is a threat.

    Jon Stewart is distorting the facts by saying that nothing can be done now because nothing has been done since the 1970s.

    And by saying that nothing can be done, he is making it more likely that nothing will be done.

  • I did not get the impression that Jon was saying nothing can be done now. But I do agree that there is more damning evidence against our oil dependency (foreign or domestic) now then 30 years ago.

    Rachel Maddow hinted at USING less oil last night, but it was at the end of the segment and just a brief mention. Hopefully this indicates that the thought has crept into the media. It has to start somewhere.

  • I disagree that there is more *political pressure* in America now because of climate change than there was during other points in the last 40 years. I agree there is more *scientific evidence* now, but unfortunately a good portion of Americans don’t believe it, and they elect representatives who don’t believe it or are unwilling to do anything significant about it, and therefore it doesn’t translate from scientific evidence to political pressure.

    I think the point is that if the gas crises of the ’70s, which actually severely disrupted people’s everyday lives, or the gulf wars, which had their children giving their lives, didn’t produce the will to get something done, it is naive to think that climate change science will. When people were lined up around the block for gas, there was no opposition equivalent to the climate change deniers: everyone agreed there was a problem, and yet still nothing productive got done. This is a lesson about the magnitude of the resistance to change on this issue.

    So the point is not that nothing *can* be done now, but that nothing *will* be done now if the amount of political capital Obama and the senate are putting into the issue does not change drastically, and if they fail to get the American people firmly on their side.

  • SteveS: The gas crises of the 1970s did lead to action, but the action ended when gas prices went down in the 1980s. It requires a lead time of ten years of more to get new technologies in place, so the synfuels industry began to develop when prices were high but then collapsed when prices fell. Fuel efficiency of new cars cars went up during the 1970s and went down again when oil prices went down.

    Global warming is not going to just disappear in a less than decade, as the high gas prices of the 1970s did.

    “a good portion of Americans don’t believe it, and they elect representatives who don’t believe it or are unwilling to do anything significant about it,”

    In fact, the majority in the House of Representatives believes it and wants to do something significant about it. And the majority in the Senate believes in it and wants to do something significant about it – but the problem is that the Senate requires a 60 vote supermajority.

    There has never been a time when there have been so many politicians in America saying that we have to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

  • I have a little plan…. it’s on in great detail.

  • Walter McHugh

    Jon Stewart has found a sticht for smart aleck comments that get cheap laughs. Presidents are easy targets. But they can only point the way. The real culprits for our reliance on oil are the American public who don’t wish to give up any of the creature comforts we enjoy at the expense of non-renewable energy. . If Stewart really wants to accomplish some meaningful satire point the finger of ridicule where it truly belongs. At all of us (including Stewart by the way).

  • jane mc

    As I laughed hysterically while watching the bit, I acknowledged the fact that I again was in one of those situations where you have to laugh at this state of affairs or else you would cry.



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