Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Something was missing in Obama's Oval Office speech...

Everything about Obama's oval office speech about the Gulf oil spill tonight was predictable and effective -- except his call for a new energy bill.

This time, for me, his familiar riff about the nation's history of rising to major challenges, mustered in support of action to change our energy consumption and production, rang a bit hollow:
The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny – our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there. We know we'll get there.
It rang hollow because, while the echoes of his advocacy for health care reform were striking,  so was a core difference: he did not lay out the "core elements" of the bill he wanted.

Tonight, Obama framed the imperative to pass a comprehensive climate bill in the same terms he used to signal his health care push. In a  Dec. 11, 2008 press conference introducing his healthcare team, he posed a rhetorical question: 
Some may ask how at this moment of economic challenge we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system. And I ask a different question. I ask, how can we afford not to?
And  tonight:
When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill – a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy – because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

Also as in the health care process, Obama insisted that he was open to ideas from both parties.  But...ideas within what framework?  Therein lies the difference.

In the drive to a health care bill, Obama was widely lambasted on the left for damning the public option with faint praise. It was clear from spring '09 that he was not going to fight for it, probably because it was clear to him that a strong public option could not pass; presumably, he concluded that a weak one was not worth fighting for.  What he did go to the mat for were key cost control provisions -- and, when the chips were down, an insistence that the bill's core elements -- the exchanges, the individual mandate, the new coverage rules, the Medicare cuts and the cost control measures -- could not be pulled apart.

Tonight, that package of core elements was MIA. To pick up (and review briefly) where we left off:
When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill – a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy – because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development – and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet...
There are two key evasions here. First, he does not say that we "can't afford not to" incur "the costs associated with this transition" to making clean energy profitable.  He merely says that we can't afford not to change how produce and use energy -- without sticking up for the chief mechanism of change -- some form of making carbon emissions more expensive, e.g. via cap-and-trade as in the House bill.  And then, "The one approach I will not accept is inaction." But that does not signal clearly that he will not accept ineffectual or partial action.

I did have a similar reaction to Obama's State of the Union address this year, at which point he had not made unequivocally clear that he would go all out to get the House to pass the Senate health care bill, the sine qua non at that point of comprehensive reform. He hinted as much, as delicately as he suggested tonight that he would like to see a version of the House energy bill passed.  Here was my immediate reaction:
Could have been worse. He defended the broad outlines of the bill eloquently, and per preview, said he would not walk away and that Congress has to find a way. But he did not say how. There was the gesture/invitation to bipartisanship I anticipated, but it seemed designed merely to put Republicans on the defensive. His prescription pointed toward the House passing the Senate bill without calling for it. Will he now help to drive Democrats that way?  Jury's still out.
So perhaps he will step up the advocacy for a cap-and-trade bill in the coming weeks, as he did for HCR after the State of the Union.  But the alternatives that he cited as implied substitutes for cap-and-trade seem like thin gruel.  Energy efficiency standards for new buildings are already being written by municipalities as states across the country.  And mandates to change the mix in methods of electricity production don't touch consumption.

The thinness of this gruel does recall another takeaway from the health care battle: Obama only fights for what he thinks he can get.

Update 6/16: Building on that last sentence above, I'd have to agree with Sullivan here:

So far: two steps backward for every one forward. But it's worth remembering that almost every step backward on innovating post-carbon energy comes from the GOP. Obama and the Dems would have passed a serious climate bill by now if it weren't for total Republican obstructionism (with the fitful exception of Butters). Obama is not the real obstacle here: the American people are, however manipulated by short-term political maneuvering by Republicans. And he does not have the political capital at this point in time to twist their arms. He has already pushed so many as far as they can go - on the issues of the economy and health insurance.

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