Public Confidence and Energy

May 25, 1979

Report Outline
Reaction to Recent Shortages
Worsening U.S. Energy Situation
Efforts to Win Public Trust
Special Focus

Reaction to Recent Shortages

Skepticism that Fuel Shortages are Real

Public skepticism about the seriousness of the energy situation has plagued President Carter throughout his administration. When he proposed his “National Energy Plan” to Congress in April 1977 with great fanfare, Carter asked the American people to respond to energy shortages with what he called “the moral equivalent of war.” Four months later, a CBS-New York Times poll asked the following question: “President Carter has told us that we are running out of oil and natural gas. Do you think things are as bad as the president said?” Of those responding, only 33 percent said yes while 57 percent said no.

Despite repeated presidential addresses, unceasing media attention and new problems with Middle East oil suppliers, the American public's views on energy have barely changed in the past two years. According to a recent poll taken by NBC News and the Associated Press, over half the people questioned — 54 percent — thought the energy shortage was a hoax. The difficulty of convincing the public that there is an oil supply problem has been conceded by government officials. A Department of Energy official sees the oil supply problem “not like the kind of crisis we had with Pearl Harbor, but more like a cancer ….” Another spokesman for the department said that telling people oil inventories are being depleted “doesn't have the clarion call that it's time to hit the trenches.”

Pollster Patrick Caddell has said that President Carter never expected to build a strong national consensus in favor of his energy policy. “It is easily demonstrated from surveys …,” Caddell wrote last year, “that it would be next to impossible to construct a ‘popular’ energy policy, since large segments of the public oppose most possible solutions if they ‘cost’ anything, whether that cost is expressed in taxes, higher prices, or environmental risk. Even advocating policies that have clear majority support — such as nuclear power or offshore drilling — runs the risk of alienating the outspoken of such policies.”

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