Why the Midterms Mean Approximately Nothing for U.S. Energy Policy

Another midterm election is upon us, with almost everyone predicting disastrous losses for Democrats. What does this mean for America's "clean energy future"? Not necessarily as much as you'd think.

The obvious answer is that things look bleak. The Republicans are the party of "no," and as the current minority, they've made it clear that they're not fans of cap and trade or otherwise expansive and enlightened energy policy. Why would anyone expect their tune to change once they're handed a fresh, shiny chance at being the majority? And does anyone really think Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle will put forth a sound energy policy that reduces our "addiction" (President Bush's word, not mine) to oil?

Of course, if you're paying attention to the polls, you've already heard absurd issue comparison questions like this: What do you care about more right now? Energy, or health care? Energy, or the economy? Well, when you put it like that, even I have a hard time choosing energy! Americans aren't stupid, but they're often asked stupid questions.

The truth about the fate of our clean energy future is far more nuanced. It doesn't matter who's in charge, because it's a marketing issue. Time and again, my work with SmartPower has shown that the American people will embrace clean energy and energy efficiency if it's marketed to them properly. And we're definitely not marketing it to them properly.

Effective clean energy and energy efficiency marketing is simple. It means presenting them as consumer products -- no different from Coca Cola or McDonald's -- that fit the lifestyle of every American, not just liberals or "tree huggers."

As long as we keep treating energy as a political issue -- as the province of the left and right, something to take sides on and argue about -- we'll always fall into the traps of fear, ignorance and distrust of "the other." And we will never have meaningful, comprehensive energy policies in America.

In fact, if our elected leaders don't figure this out quickly, we're in serious danger of repeating mistakes we made 30 years ago, when the environmental movement gained real steam. Back then, clean energy and conservation became buzzwords that entered mainstream political debate. President Carter spoke about the importance of the issue, and also took action, wearing his sweater in the White House and having solar panels installed on the roof. All it took to crush this momentum was the 1980 presidential election, when the other party won. Ronald Reagan wasted no time dismantling those panels.

Here we are, 30 years later, and we're already in danger of marginalizing energy issues again. This seems counterintuitive: we have a trendy, burgeoning social movement around all things "green" and "sustainable," certainly among the most pervasive, politically correct buzzwords of the day. And President Obama speaks openly about the importance of clean energy, while taking an important but all-too-familiar symbolic action: announcing plans for a solar installation at the White House.

But Obama is up for reelection in 2012. Even if he wins, it will be a whole new ball game in 2016 and beyond. Who's to say that, when the next Republican takes office -- whether it's sooner or later -- that he or she won't tear down Obama's progress on clean energy while changing the drapes in the Oval Office?

If President Obama really wants to transform our energy outlook, it's not too late. He is uniquely positioned to make it happen. No matter what the outcome of the midterms, our commander-in-chief needs to use whatever's within reach: the Ad Council, the Department of Energy, The Department of Commerce, The Department of Agriculture, marketing firms across the nation -- to get out the truth about clean energy. It's a valuable consumer product that creates jobs and saves American consumers money. And you don't have to drive a hybrid, wear hemp, or vote Democratic to benefit from it. As we know, this message travels best on the ground, community to community, neighbor to neighbor.

Our "clean energy future" is still within our grasp. We just need to separate it from the politics of the moment and put it squarely into the marketplace. After all, McDonald's doesn't care if you're a witch running for Senate in Delaware, or if you're insisting that Harry Reid needs to "man up." So why should energy?