With gasoline prices up about 60 percent over last year, many are worrying that we’re returning to the 1970s, when Americans faced their first full-blown energy crisis. There was a “panic at the pump” and elsewhere as food and transport prices soared.
So what is President Biden going to do? The answer is, whatever it takes. That means releasing reserves — as he did last week — along with browbeating oil companies and pressuring petroleum producers abroad. The United States is not going to “stand by idly and wait for prices to drop on their own. Instead, we’re taking action,” the president proclaimed. Such moves reflect his political effort to balance the urgent need for bold environmental legislation with being responsive to the needs of working-class families — and making sure Americans know that he cares.
In taking this approach, Biden seems to be learning from the mistakes that hurt President Jimmy Carter. Biden had a front-row seat as the 39th president treated politics as the enemy of a good energy policy. While Carter had lots of good ideas about how to “solve” the gas crisis of the 1970s, he didn’t match that with understanding the basic pocketbook needs of working Americans — and it cost him a second term.
By the time Carter took office in 1977, inflation was running high. So was unemployment. Contemporaries coined a new term, “stagflation,” to capture this simultaneous occurrence of rising prices and stagnating employment.
To conservatives, and even to some moderate Democrats like Carter, fighting inflation took precedence over priming the pump. “We cannot afford to do everything,” a somber Carter said in his inaugural address.
Inflation only worsened, reaching a high of nearly 15 percent, driven in part by a dramatic increase in oil prices led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For the first time, consumers feared paying more than a dollar a gallon to fill up, signaling not only the tripling of gas prices in less than a decade but also more generally the decline of the United States as a global independent superpower.
In response, Carter urged Americans to sacrifice, and led by example. He turned down White House thermostats and addressed the American public wearing a cardigan sweater to keep warm. When an oil shock hit in 1979 in response to the Iranian Revolution, he famously asked Americans to stop driving so much as the solution to high prices at the pump.