The nation's energy problem has turned into a personal leadership crisis for President Carter, with growing public demand for decisive action, according to a Washington Post survey of members of Congress and political party leaders scattered across a dozen states.
The informal phone check of some 30 elected and party officials indicated that concern has shifted from the gas station lines -- now nonexistent in most areas -- to the question of whether Carter will come from his Camp David meetings with the hard answers people are seeking.
"i've never seen people so angry -- or so ugly," said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer [D-Pa.]. "It's almost as if they've given up on the country . . . . They think Carter is a nice man, and honest, but they just think, he's not able to do anything. He's not up to the job. Even the best Democrats talk like they've given up on Carter."
While that was the main theme, the random survey of House members back in their districts for Independence Day festivities turned up some other common refrains:
A growing recognition that energy supply problems are more real than imagined; new levels of interest in synthetic fuel programs; less hostility toward oil-exporting nations than might be expected, and a realization that drastically altered litestyles, based on less driving, are just around the corner.
If there is any target for the accumulating frustration in the drama now unfolding other than Carter himself, it is probably Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger. The survey turned up adverse comments on him from all sections of the country, with many echoing the view of Peter Campbell, a Democratic National Committee member from new Jersey, the "schlesinger has to go. Unfortunately, the country needs a fall guy, and it's got to be him."
But judging from the comments in this survey, it is not clear that Carter could rescue himself by jettinsoning Schlesinger -- even if he were so inclined. "What people want is leadership from the president," said Kathy Vick, vice chairman of the Democratic Party in Louisiana. Her counterpart in Michigan, Olivia Maynard, Said, "people need to feel the president knows what he's doing . . . . And now they don't feel that."
While Vick said "people's jaws just dropped" in New Orleans when Carter canceled his scheduled Thursday night energy policy speech, the postponement of the message was regarded by most others as no more than a symptom of the policy confusion in Washington.
J. Michael Broden, the Wisconsin Republican chairman, said, " a lot of people feel it's an indication of his [Carter's] inability to manage the presidency . . . . People are more than more convinced that the man cannot get his act together and function as president of the United States."
Despite such comments, Jody Powell, the White House press secretary, said yesterday from Camp David that the president was "not terribly concerned" about the short-term impression, created by the speech cancellation, that his policy was in disarray. "I don't think that [impression] will last long and what matters is what we come out with," Powell said.
Ironically, support for the view came from Rep. Robert Bauman [R-Md.], one of Carter's most consistent conservative critics. "Nobody here on the Eastern Shore gives a darn whether he put off the speech for a few days," Bauman said. "That's a big deal in Washington, but out here in the boondocks it's just one more Carterism. It won't make any difference as long as he does say something about energy sometime."
Powell and others participating in the Camp David meetings indicated that Carter was focusing, not just on energy issues, but on the whole question of how to regain command of a deteriorating domestic economic and political situation.
And the comments from politicians in both parties left no doubt about the urgency of that task.
Rep. Bill Alexander [D-Ark.] said the remarks he heard at five July 4 picnics in eastern Arkansas boiled down to this: "They want positive action. Political trickery won't suffice."
He was put on notice, Alexander said, that both he and Carter would be voted out of office if the gasoline situation worsens. On the other hand, he said, "i got the best reaction in 11 years when I told them we can't continue to operate on an oil economy; we have to shift to other sources of energy."
Many others commented on the apparent readiness of the public for strong energy action. Ronald Swenson, the Democratic chairman in Utah, said, "People are just looking for somebody to tell them what to do to beat these problems. They're ready to get something going of the magnitude of the moon shot. People will do what is necessary, if they're asked. But no one is telling them what's necessary."
In Wichita, Rep. Dan Glickman [d-Kan.] heard constituents sayings the same thing they were telling Rep. Butler Derrick [D-S-C.] in his state: They are ready to sacrifice and share that discomforts once it is clear that the entire country is on the same course.
"they say: 'Glickman, we'll suffer a bit, but we have to believe the government means business.' They see a weakness in government leadership and determination," the Kansan said.
Derrick said "most people here understand they have to conserve, to drive smaller cars, do some thinking before they drive. What I get from them is this: They will do whatever is necessary, if someone will just tell them what that is. They are looking for leadership."
In one district after another, Schlesinger was taking verbal lumps. Legislators reported constituents' belief that the secretary and his Department of Energy have added to the confusion and abetted, rather than alleviated, fuel distribution problems.
In east central Indiana, Democratic Rep. Phillip R. Sharp encountered the same blunt criticism of Schlesinger the fellow House members were finding. "there is hostility to Schlesinger and the DOE Sharp said, "but there is also a much greater acceptance that there is a real problem."
When Rep. Margaret Heckler [r-Mass.] went to her district around Fall River, she said, she found "a total lack of confidence in Schlesinger at the grassroots and a tremendous loss of confidence in the president. I feel the president has to be aware there is no credibility in the administration."
Heckler described constituents in Fall River, where gasoline supplies have been tight, as "distraught" over energy matters, but particularly fearful of a cold winter if heating oil supplies are not increased.
Others in the Northeast echoed the concern over the heating fuel picture. Rep. Norman Lent [R-N.Y.], for example, showed up last weekend for his regular constituents forum in the VFW hall in Hicksville and was met by a standing-room-only crowd that wanted to talk about one subject only: gasoline.
"everybody on Long Island has had to wait in gas lines," Lent said. "And there's a real feeling of anger, fustration, outrage. If you had to sum it up, I'd say they just want somebody to do something."
That new American phenomenon -- the gasoline line -- seemed to be concentrated in the northeastern states, yet not far from Lent's Long Island district in upstate New York, Rep. Barber Conable [R-N.Y] reported few queues for fuel.
Even so, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee found, New Yorkers talked a little else but energy around Rochester, lamenting indecision at the White House and "somehow disappointed that Congress has not filled what they view as a vacuum."
"they want leadership," Conable continued, "because they have a sense of drift, uncertainty and vacillation . . . They suspect the oil companies and the government, but they don't tend to focus their criticsm on the Arabs that much."
Conable and others reported growing interest among voters in synthetic fuels. In the Miama Beach area, Rep. William Lehman [d-Fla.] found voters asking when synthetics would be available, but as concerned about health care, food and housing costs as they are about gasoline supplies.
"it is the uncertainty that bothers people -- the future. For the first time, this week I hear undertones a military action over oil. Nobody is forth-right about it, but it's right below the surface -- some think it's going to bring on a war."
Farther north in Florida, Rep. Bill Nelson [D-Fla.] said that speeches he delivered in Orlando and Melbourne, touting synthetic fuel development, drew standing ovations from luncheon audiences.
In rural Darlington, Wis., Rep. Robert Kastenmeier [D-Wis.] conducted a two-hour town meeting in which every question touched on energy. He, too, found interest high in synthetic fuel programs, he said.
Rep. John Conyers [D-Mich.] in Detroit and Rep. Thomas L. [Lud] Ashley [D-Ohio] in nearby Toleldo reported that voters were taking gasoline shortages -- or fears of shortages -- seriously and staying close to home during the July 4 period.
Both reported constituents in a aministration and the oil companies for speaking and acting in conflicting ways.
But Ashley, one of the House leaders on energy matters, said he noted a dramatic turn of opinion in recent weeks.
"my sense," he said, "is that many people realize there is a supply problem and that it is not a hoax or a sham on the part of oil companies. . . For the first time, people are taking this seriously and that's a good thing. I'm not nearly as discouraged as I have been in the past."