The President Should Set Goals for His Administration, Not Those that Follow

President Obama announced what this article called an “ambitious goal” of reducing oil imports by one-third by 2025.  He’s setting a goal to be accomplished 14 years from now, when at most he will be in office for less than six  more years.  Even if President Obama is re-elected, and his successor serves two terms, 2025 comes after that, so we’re talking a goal the president wants accomplished at least three presidential administrations out.

If the president actually wants to set a policy goal over which he has control, he should set and announce goals for oil import reduction for 2012, so we can see by the next election if he has accomplished his goal, and for 2016, so that we can judge whether, if he gets re-elected, he accomplished his longer-run goal.  To set a goal for future administrations leaves the president completely unaccountable.  Sure, he can put policies in place now that may have impacts that last beyond his term, but it makes no sense for him to set goals for his successors.

The federal government has been setting goals for reducing energy imports since the oil embargo of 1973.  After that embargo, we established the Federal Energy Administration and embarked on “Project Independence,” which would reduce the nation’s oil imports to zero by 1985.  I am looking at the Federal Energy Administration’s Project Independence Report, dated November 1974, right now, which explains how we can achieve the goal of energy independence by 1985.  Gerald Ford was president when this report was released, but the goal of energy independence by 1985 was missed during Ronald Reagan’s second term.  Then as now, administrations were setting goals for their successors rather than themselves, and we are further away from energy independence than ever.

If presidents set policy goals for their successors, we should call them on it.  My request to the president: Tell us what you hope to accomplish during your term on office, not what you hope your successors can accomplish.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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