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Thomas L. Friedman: Energy-independent U.S. would solve many problems

Following President Bush's speech in New Orleans, many U.S. papers carried the same basic headline: "Bush Rules Out Raising Taxes for Gulf Relief." The president is planning to rely on "spending cuts" instead to pay for rebuilding New Orleans. Yeah, right — and if you believe that, I have some beach-front property in Biloxi I'd like to sell you. The underlying message of all these stories is that the Bush team sees no reason to change course in response to Katrina.

I beg to differ. Katrina deprived the Bush team of the energy source that propelled it forward for the past four years: Sept. 11 and the halo over the presidency that came with it. The events of Sept. 11 created a deference in the U.S. public, and media, for the administration, which exploited it to the hilt to push an uncompassionate conservative agenda on tax cuts and runaway spending, on which it never could have gotten elected. That deference is over.

If Bush wants to make anything of his second term, he'll have to do his own Nixon-to-China turnaround, reframe the debate and recast the priorities of his presidency. He seems to think that by offering to spend billions of dollars to rebuild one city, New Orleans, he'll get his leadership halo back. Wrong. Just throwing more borrowed money at New Orleans is not leadership. Bush needs to frame a new agenda for rebuilding all our cities and strengthening the nation as a whole. And what should be the centerpiece of a policy of American renewal is blindingly obvious: making a quest for energy independence the moon shot of our generation.

The president should have done that on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001. The country was ready. But the president whiffed. Katrina — nature's Sept. 11 — has given him a rare do-over. Imagine — I know it is a stretch — that the president announced tomorrow that he wanted an immediate 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax — the "American Renewal Tax," to be used to rebuild New Orleans, pay down the deficit, fund tax breaks for Americans to convert their cars to hybrid technology or biofuels, fund a Manhattan Project to develop alternatives for energy independence, and subsidize mass transit systems for our major cities.

And imagine if he tied this to an appeal to young people to go into science, math and engineering for the great national purpose of making us the greenest nation on the planet, to help liberate us from dependence on the worst regimes in the world for our oil and to help ease the global warming that is heating up the oceans, making our hurricanes more intense and our lowlands more vulnerable. America's kids are hungry to be challenged for some larger purpose, which has been utterly absent in this presidency.

Americans will change their long-term energy habits, and companies will develop green products only if they are certain the price of gasoline will not go back down. A gasoline tax (Americans have already shown they'll tolerate higher prices) and stronger regulation would force U.S. companies to innovate in what is going to be one of the most important global industries in the 21st century: green technologies. By coddling our auto and industrial companies when it comes to mileage standards and the environment, all the Bush team is doing is ensuring that they will be dinosaurs and that Chinese, Japanese and Indian companies will take the lead in green technologies — because they have to and ours don't.

Look what Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, said: "America should strive to make energy and environmental practices a national core competency, and by doing so, create exports in jobs. America is the leading consumer of energy. However, we are not the technical leader. Europe today is the major force for environmental innovation. European governments have encouraged their companies to invest (in) and produce clean power technologies. The same is true for nuclear power. And government policy that encourages this with subsidies and other incentives is giving European companies a leg up. While Europe has been a driver for innovation, China promises to be its market."

Setting the goal of energy independence, along with a gasoline tax, could help to solve so many of our problems today — from the deficit to climate change and national security. And Americans would pay it if they thought the extra money was going to renew America, not Iran, and not just New Orleans. And if the Texas-oilman president became the energy-independence president — now, that would snap heads and make this a truly relevant presidency.

No way, you say. Probably right. But either Bush does a Nixon-to-China or his next three years are going to be a Bush-to-Nowhere.

New York Times News Service