June 15, 2011
Obama Concedes Energy Policy Remains "a Hodgepodge"‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 |
By Alexis Simendinger
As he travels across the country touting jobs, innovation and his re-election, President Obama consistently talks up an energy agenda for the future. And when he says future, he really means it. The president has in his mind a timetable distant enough for the U.S. reduction of global warming pollutants, for instance, that his daughters could be middle-aged before his energy goals are realized.
"We said that we've got to start investing in clean energy because as long as we are vulnerable to a system in which we have 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, but we use 25 percent of the world's oil, we'll never have our economy on a firm footing -- not to mention the environmental consequences of continuing to rely on fossil fuels," Obama said Tuesday at a speech in Miami. "And so we made the largest investment in clean energy in our history."
Obama's is a big-picture agenda praised as visionary by supporters and disastrous by critics. Regardless, a gridlocked Congress, attentive to the 2012 elections and riveted by their constituents' more immediate woes, won't be tackling major energy legislation for the remainder of Obama's current term in office. They will wait to see who occupies the White House and how control stacks up in Congress in 2013.
The 2009 cap-and-trade legislation Obama marched through the House died a slow death in the Senate when regional and partisan disagreements undercut the required 60 votes to get the legislation on and off the floor. Following an exhausting health care battle, and heading into a high-profile battle to clamp down on big banks last year, senators found themselves out of energy for energy. Then in the fall, House Democrats lost seats when opponents attacked them for supporting Obama's "cap and tax" agenda.
Other initiatives beyond those meant to curb climate change -- policies that require legislation -- also remain stalled. Meanwhile, opponents want to block -- in Congress or in the courts -- aspects of the administration's regulatory muscle tied to existing laws, such as the Clean Air Act.
In a season in which GOP presidential opponents are accusing the president of making the country less secure as its dependence on high-priced foreign oil continues, Obama finds himself on the defensive. Modest or future achievements -- such as higher vehicle fuel-efficiency requirements starting in 2017 and beyond -- don't quite appease liberals who backed Obama in 2008, and many of his bolder energy aspirations remain that: aspirations.
"My plan isn't just about making dirty energy expensive," Obama said as he began campaigning for the presidency in 2007. "It's about making clean energy affordable."
That was the Obama plan before the recession veered toward a depression and 8 million jobs evaporated. His embrace of more domestic oil drilling was overtaken by a BP oil spill catastrophe that poisoned the Gulf of Mexico. And the president had barely issued his call for more nuclear power generation in the United States when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan produced the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
During his campaign, Obama and his team embraced the idea of higher fuel prices to discourage gasoline consumption. With gasoline prices averaging close to $4 a gallon and households holding down consumption in a tough economy, Republicans have turned the president's earlier logic against him. Oil price spikes -- not something the president envisioned -- turn out to be something the White House cannot control.
On Tuesday, economist Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that another oil price spike is one of the economic risks he worries about as the recovery remains fragile.
But from an economic standpoint, while higher energy prices undermine consumer confidence and squeeze household budgets, one bright spot may be the relative impermanence of the inflationary impact as long as pump prices come back down, Elmendorf said. "The general lesson of the past few decades is that even pretty big swings in oil prices do not have lasting effects on core prices."
Obama's brand of energy futurism, depending on how it is framed, could yet fall flat -- even if plenty of voters endorse his policies in the broadest terms. A patriotic, competitive message focused on "winning the future" when going head-to-head with China and other U.S. competitors does well in voter focus groups, according to one recent report.
"The future [policy] focus is on investing in education, protecting Medicare and investing in innovation and energy to create the middle-class jobs of the future," said the authors of a multi-stage Democracy Corps survey released June 2 that focused on the economy. It was conducted by Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The pollsters advised Democrats that a concentration on the future, rather than the past or what the president and the party inherited in 2009, was especially effective with "new Obama voters and suburban voters."
High gas prices are front and center this summer, and if that weren't enough, tornadoes, floods, joblessness and lewd lawmakers also seize public attention in ways that outstrip the president's enthusiasms for innovations in LED lighting and electric cars.
Meanwhile, futurists in the Republican Party have their own agenda, and energy is not on it. They are concentrating on the country's deficits, debt and unsustainable federal commitments.
"The Republicans' focus is almost entirely on the scale of the debt problem, the need for government to live within its means and the need for urgent action," the Democracy Corps research noted. "Their strongest messages are more positive and focus on the future. Their policy is smaller government and not passing on big debts to our children; lower taxes that grow small business and create middle-class jobs. They are centered in one element of people's current understanding of the economy, but they are suggesting they can raise incomes and create jobs, too. It shows they 'get it,' " the pollsters wrote.
In Miami Tuesday, the president joked that all manner of harrowing events keep scrambling his once-orderly roster of campaign promises. "We've been busy," Obama quipped after running through a lengthy list of domestic and global hot potatoes. "That doesn't count the pirates, the pandemic, the oil spills," he continued. "Bin Laden," shouted a member of the audience. "Bin Laden, yeah, that was another thing we did," the president agreed, as listeners applauded.
"We've got more work to do," Obama continued. "Our energy policy still is just a hodgepodge, and for all the progress we've made, we're not where we need to be in making sure that this is an energy-efficient economy that is running on all cylinders."
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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at [email protected]
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at June 15, 2011 - 05:31:38 AM PDT