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How the power of oil dogged former presidents, and could tar Obama

By John Blake, CNN
  • The power of oil has sunk the fortunes of many presidents
  • Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to take on Big Oil
  • One president's term foundered because of oil shortage
  • Scholar: Obama could "go down in oil-tinged fumes"

(CNN) -- The president was young, a Harvard-educated intellectual admired for his charisma and skill with the written word.

His foe was pious but ruthless, the head of a massive oil corporation that supplied 90 percent of America's oil.

When Theodore Roosevelt tangled with oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, near the turn of the 20th century, he became the first president to pit the power of the White House against the power of oil.

Roosevelt ultimately won that battle in 1911 when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the breakup of the Standard Oil Company, Rockefeller's company. But oil has tarred other presidents, and may do the same to President Obama as he tries to manage the Gulf of Mexico disaster, says Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School.

"He needs to deal with this in a politically effective way or he's going to go down in oil-tinged fumes," Koehn says. "This is a make or break moment for his presidency."

How oil boosted the success of one American president

Video: The Smithsonian and the Gulf

Oil doesn't just foul the ocean, it can destroy a presidency, historians say.

One president sealed his greatness with his handling of an oil crisis. Another was doomed by his inability to contain an oil crisis, scholars say.

President Eisenhower was the first president to warn the nation about oil in 1957, says James Hedtke, a history professor at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

"He was the first president to mention oil in the State of the Union message," Hedtke says. "He talked about the United States' dependency on oil."

Other presidents delivered the same talk -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- but America's dependence on foreign oil continued to grow.

One president did convince Americans to cut back on their consumption of oil.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to grapple with an oil shortage in war time, says Jonathan Emord, a Washington attorney who has written publicly about Obama's cleanup efforts.

After World War II erupted, Roosevelt formed the Petroleum Industry War Council to ensure the military's access to oil. And he convinced Americans to accept the need to ration oil, Emord says.

"Rather than tax his presidency," Emord says, "rationing became generally accepted and bolstered the perception that he was uniting the nation in the war effort."

Roosevelt could not have led the U.S. to victory in World War II had he not ensured that the nation had access to oil, and its enemies didn't, says Richard Heinberg, author of "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies."

The German army's march across Western Europe and Russia; Japan's decision to attack America and its subsequent defeat -- all revolved around the need for oil, Heinberg says.

"FDR was very much aware of the power of oil," Heinberg says. "World War II was very much about oil."

How oil doomed another president

Politicians look at it as the Carter Curse. You just can't tell the American people the truth anymore. You can't call for action.
--Richard Heinberg, author and historian

Nixon and Ford made national pleas for energy independence after the OPEC crisis of the 1970s, when a boycott from oil-producing countries produced long gas lines in the United States.

One president became wildly popular when he fought a war that some say was sparked by a need for oil.

The elder President Bush's approval rating soared to an all-time high in 1991 after the American and coalition forces kicked Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, home to about 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, says Hedtke, the history professor from Cabrini College in Pennsylvania.

"His [Bush] approval ratings were about 90 percent, '' Hedtke says. "If the economy hadn't fallen apart, it might have given him a second term."

His son, President George W. Bush, launched an invasion of Iraq that some critics said was based on the need for more oil.

But the president whose term was most profoundly shaped by oil was Carter, some historians say.

During Carter's term, the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran led to a significant drop in oil exports. The subsequent Iran-Iraq War caused oil prices to rise in the United States as well.

He went on television wearing a cardigan sweater and asked Americans to turn their thermostats down to 68. He called for putting quotas on oil imports, installing solar panels and spending enormous amounts of money on energy research, Heinberg says.

The American public, though, didn't want to tighten their belts. They subsequently elected Reagan, who removed the solar panels Carter installed at the White House and said America deserved its easy motoring way of life, Heinberg says.

The lesson for politicians was clear: Don't ask Americans to sacrifice their desire for cheap oil, Heinberg says.

He needs to deal with this in a politically effective way or he's going to do down in oil-tinged fumes. This is a make or break moment for his presidency.
--Nancy Koehn, historian

"Politicians look at it as the 'Carter curse,' " Heinberg says. "You can't just tell the American people the truth anymore. You can't call for bold action."

What Obama can learn from Teddy Roosevelt

At least one other president challenged the nation with bold action, and succeeded. President John Kennedy challenged the nation to put a person on the moon within a decade.

Could Obama issue a similar challenge in the name of building a petroleum-free future?

Paul Roberts, author of "The End of Oil," says Obama faces a more difficult task than Kennedy.

"We've had cheap oil for such a long time that's it's very hard for the average consumer to see why they shouldn't be entitled to it forever," Roberts says.

But Koehn, the Harvard historian, says Obama could learn from Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt campaigned relentlessly against Rockefeller, who had transformed Standard Oil into a monopoly through ruthless business practices. The president conducted whistle-stop tours, wrote op-ed pieces, invited industry leaders to the White House to talk about the danger of an oil company gaining too much power.

"Go directly to the people and say these are the two things -- it can't be 160 things -- that we need to do," Koehn says. "Americans are dying to be of service. But he's not issuing a call to arms."

The time for that call is long overdue because the only oil now available is in far-off places that present huge environmental and financial risks, she says.

"There is not going to be any easy pickings out there -- no more Beverly Hillbilly gushers left to be discovered in the backyards of Dallas," Koehn says.

The country may face another oil crisis as soon as a decade from now, says Heinberg, who is also a senior fellow at the Carbon Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Santa Rosa, California.

Heinberg believes it could include people freezing to death in the winter in the Northeast; farmers going bankrupt because they can't afford to pay fuel prices; the chemical industry collapsing because it doesn't have enough oil to make plastic.

Time isn't running out -- it has already run out, Heinberg says.

"What is humanly possible and politically possible are two different things," Heinberg says. "We've lived without oil for thousands of years until the last century so, yes, we can do it.

"But the transition is going to be wrenching unless we prepare for it. We should have prepared for it but we blew it."