President Carter held his first news conference of 1978 yesterday and devoted as much of it as he could to the subject that dominated so many news conferences last year - energy.
Reporting on his recently completed nine-day trip seven countries, the President said that everywhere he went he received the same message from foreign leaders.
"They are looking to our country to see whether we have the will, the resolve to deal squarely with our energy problems which are also becoming their problems," he said.
Carter tied the outcome of the energy debate not only to the United States' future economic well-being but also to the economies of the industrialized democracies.
"If our own economy is not strong," he said, "if our strength is being sapped by excessive [oil] imports, then we can't provide the kind of leadership and stability on which the economic well-being of the Western democracies rests so heavily."
In response to a question about interest rates, which he said he hopes will be lowered, the President returned again to the subject of energy.
"I hate to repeat myself again," he said, "but I think that until the question of energy is resolved the uncertainty about this subject and the realization about this that our excessive imports of oil or adverse balance of trade is going to be permanent, those two things are going to contribute to the deleterious efforts of increasing interest rates and also uncertainty in the stock market."
In all these comments, Carter made clear that passage of his stalled national energy legislation remains his top priority as Congress prepares to return for its second session next week. He also said there is "an excellent chance" the legislation will be passed early this year.
The President's confidence was reiterated by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who said in an interview that "the White House thinks it [the national energy legislation] is ready for a break."
O'Neill said he told Carter he can expect early congressional passage of a tax cut, but that he should put off his tax revision proposals until 1979.
"I've told the President we can't get tax reform through at this time" even if it is tied to the tax cuts, O'Neill said.
Carter met yesterday with a group of black leaders to discuss, among othe things, black unemployment. The President later said at his news conference that he told Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP that he strongly disagrees with the organization's recent decision to support deregulation of prices on new oil and gas and its call for much of the money generated by proposed energy taxes to go to industry for exploration.
The NAACP argues that these measures would spur the economy and create more jobs for blacks.
"I want to have a strong economy, too," Carter said. "But I don't think that is the right way to do it."
Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) told reporters after the White House meeting that "black unemployment is so astronomically high that it's ludicrous to say that a 1 per cent or a half per cent, or a 2 per cent reduction is significant."
The issue was apparently put to Carter in similarly strong terms. There was also discussion of the need for a senior level black adviser to the President.
Throughout the news conference, the President seemed subdued and at times unusually hestitant in his answers. Most of the questions dealt with domestic policy.
On one foreing policy topic, the President accused the Soviet Union of selling "excessive quantities of arms and weapons to both Somalia and to Ethiopia" and of sending "some men" to Ethiopia, "perhaps to become combatants" in that nation's war with Somalia.
Carter was not specific, but administration officials said later they believe there are up to 1,600 Russians in Ethiopia serving as technicians and military advisers, as well as more than 1,000 Cubans serving in the same capacity.
The President also reiterated his determination to press for a major tax cut this year, saying he believes it will be necessary to sustain economic recovery in 1978.