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Trump’s energy plan can succeed—he just needs to channel Reagan

President Ronald Reagan campaigns in Orange County California during his 1984 re-election campaign.
Dirck Halstead | Getty Images
President Ronald Reagan campaigns in Orange County California during his 1984 re-election campaign.

What is it about Donald Trump that sends so many of the so-called "experts" off on the wrong message? Even after an election victory that should have humbled most of them, they're now moving from telling us why Trump would not win to gleefully jumping at every chance to inform the public about why his policies and plans in office will fail right out of the gate. The latest example is an almost uniform message from the economic and political punditry that Trump's energy policies will either never bear fruit or won't for at least a decade. Once again, they're missing the point. And it's not just the political landscape they're failing to recognize, but the unpredictable nature of the energy industry as well.

It's worth noting that, when it comes to energy, most of the geopolitical experts have been getting it wrong for decades. For years, American foreign policy critics have focused on the fact that the U.S. is too reliant on foreign oil, which was the polite way of saying that our reliance on Arab oil unnecessarily entangled us in too many costly wars.

The consensus conventional wisdom was that America needed to switch to alternative and renewable energy as soon as possible not only to avoid bloody wars but also to save the planet. Then a funny thing happened: Science. Technological drilling advances literally unearthed a massive virtual treasure chest of America shale oil and natural gas. Even without any massive encouragement or help from the government, the domestic energy industry soon started to pump out record numbers of crude barrels per day. Now a study released this summer says the U.S. has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and Russia.

As far as the "save the planet" argument, science and technology had much of that covered, too. Enhanced ways of drilling for natural gas, especially fracking, has unlocked a steady stream of natural gas that just happens to produce 50 to 60 percent fewer emissions than coal or crude oil. Most environmentalists are still not fans of fracking or natural gas for a number of reasons, some of them scientific and some of them political. But nat gas is generally a more environmentally friendly source of energy that also happens to be 100 percent domestic. And like crude oil, the U.S. under a Trump administration may soon begin exporting much more of the growing surplus supply to foreign buyers in a complete switch from what's been the worldwide energy economic order since the end of World War II.

But Trump energy-plan skeptics believe the still mostly depressed price of oil and gas won't bring the jobs boom he's promising even if he does allow for more drilling on federal lands and eliminates other regulations. They say even if the energy industry isn't deterred by low prices, the time it will take to set up new rigs and get them up and running will likely take longer than the eight maximum years of a Trump administration. And those skeptics are particularly throwing cold water on Trump's promises to revive the coal industry, noting that cheaper and cleaner natural gas is killing the coal industry more than government regulations anyway.

Many of these experts are the same people who told us President Obama's broad promises for green energy jobs could fuel an economic recovery. But even when a massive number of tangential jobs are added to the mix, the most recent study by the pro-green energy Environmental and Energy Study Institute shows that the number of so-called "green jobs" is minuscule compared to the traditional fossil fuel industry. And, in an inevitably ironic twist, opposition to some key solar and wind farm sites has come from environmental groups proving that basically no development is safe from the activists' ire.

So there you have it. The experts tell us Trump's fossil fuel based plans won't bring the jobs and the last eight years have told us the green energy industry won't do it either. Welcome to "Can't Do America," right?

Or maybe not. First off, who knows what new uses and jobs the energy industry will come up with as long as it has a true friend of domestic production in the White House? Energy shares have soared since Trump's election. Some of that may be because the worst case scenarios for the industry now seem much more unlikely than they did just two weeks ago. Maybe energy investors are also cheering the world of new possibilities a Trump presidency can bring, like the building of the first large-scale refinery in the U.S. since 1977, or a spike in natural gas use that could come with the building of thousands of nat gas filling stations across the country for nat gas use vehicles. Maybe a new use for coal will present itself too. Stranger things have happened. The point is, recent history tells us that the fossil-fuel industry almost never goes where the experts expect it to. Anyone who remembers the "world is running out of oil" predictions from just 9-10 years ago knows that.

And getting back to politics, these so-called experts are also ignoring the true power of the presidency. The debate over Mr. Trump's energy plans are not just about oil prices and rig-construction timetables. They're also very much about how well this incoming President of the United States is going to overcome the naysayers. How will he back up this announced bold goal, make achieving that goal mandatory for his administration, and not take failure as an option? If President-elect Trump needs inspiration, he should look to two 20th century presidents as a guide.

First, we have President Ronald Reagan who dared us to dream of how cutting taxes and boosting the defense budget would economically and militarily bring the U.S.S.R. to its knees and effectively end the recessionary 1970s and the Cold War without firing a shot. Hardly anyone in the foreign or economic policy establishment believed it, and the news media at the time was incessantly critical. But it was a central and constant message from the Reagan White House for eight years. By the time he left office, that goal was basically achieved and iconic barriers like the Berlin Wall were in ruins less than a year later.

And as we mark the 53rd anniversary of his tragic assassination, President John F. Kennedy asked the country in his 1962 State of the Union address to work to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy faced much less criticism from the news media than Reagan, but skepticism was still high. And yet, the moon landing goal was achieved in the summer of 1969. Right on President Kennedy's end of the 1960s deadline. The goal was achieved in no small part because of Kennedy's uplifting and infectious belief that it could be done. Just a few months before his death, Kennedy most clearly uttered that belief in a message that all U.S. presidents need to make their own:

"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not."

So, scoff at Trump's promises of a new energy jobs boom all you want. But if you do, remember that the energy industry's rules keep changing too rapidly to feel too secure in any long term predictions. Boosting energy jobs and American energy independence may seem like smaller potatoes than landing a man on the moon or ending the Cold War, but tell that to the millions of Americans who served in the Iraq wars or the millions of others who'd leap at the chance for six-figure natural gas fracking jobs.

And also don't forget that a consistent, clear, and optimistic presidential message can overcome just about any barrier. American citizens and industry alike tend to exceed expectations when our leaders tell us what we can do and what's good about us, as opposed to when we're lectured about all the things we're doing wrong. We know this president-elect has the clear, media-manipulating skills to get that kind of message across. All he needs now is to pivot to a more unifying and positive message, ignore the petty distractions, and keep it coming for at least the next four years.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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