Early in the Bush years, then presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer balked when asked if Americans needed to change their lifestyles to address the energy problem. "That's a big no," he said. "The president believes that it's an American way of life.... The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country."
Things didn't look so bountiful four years later, courtesy of skyrocketing oil prices and two Gulf of Mexico hurricanes. After the storms took out oil refineries and natural gas plants in 2005, President Bush was asking Americans to drive less and adjusting White House thermostats to save on power. But using less was framed as a stopgap to get through the crisis, not a policy to address the country's long-haul energy woes.
Chill out. The last politician who truly called on Americans to discomfort themselves to save energy was President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 appeared fireside in a beige cardigan to urge them in midwinter to "make modest sacrifices," like lowering their heat to 55 degrees at night.
Today, the message is not sacrifice but gain through energy savings. Both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talk about green jobs that will be created as America gets efficient. Former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, who heads the U.N. Foundation, which calls for efficiency to address climate change, favors the positive message. "The issue has to be discussed in the context of economic opportunity—saving money, introducing new technologies, resuming our leadership in the world," he says. "Nobody likes to be lectured or told they have to put on a cardigan and a hair shirt."
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, although more frequently touting nuclear power to address the nation's energy woes, also has said he believes we can use less. "I believe if Americans are asked they will conserve," he said, while adding quickly, "I'm not talking about putting on sweaters."