Can Obama Succeed On Clean Energy?
Today, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, joined by a strong coalition of business groups and NGOs, unveiled “comprehensive” climate change and clean energy legislation and emphasized their confidence in getting it passed during the current Congress. Immediately afterwards, President Obama applauded the Senators for introducing legislation that would spur clean energy innovation and ensure the U.S. meets its climate change pledge to the international community under the Copenhagen Accord. Regardless of how anybody may feel about this (i.e. too late, too weak), it is a major milestone. We’ve marked off the checklist for everything that needs to be done to pass a climate bill, except getting the Senate to pass one. Now, it is up to President Obama to fight hard to get climate change and clean energy legislation passed. Can he do it?
Ever since he signed health care legislation over a month ago, President Obama has been wavering among a host of issues ranging from climate change legislation to wall street reform to nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, he hasn’t decided to choose or two of these priorities and go with them as aggressively as he did with health care reform. What’s worse, he’s failing to live up to one of his core principles he repeatedly mentioned throughout his campaign for health care reform, and that is that his choice to act wouldn’t be influenced by “politics or the polls,” but instead by what “is the right thing to do.” With the upcoming Congressional elections, it seems that President Obama is being influenced more by the polls than “the right thing to do” as he has chosen not to fight aggressively for anything. A great example is his rather short period of campaigning for wall street reform, which lasted a couple of weeks to be left to Congress again.
If President Obama wants to succeed on climate change and clean energy legislation, he will have to push it as hard as he pushed health care reform. So far, President Obama hasn’t dedicated any town hall meetings or domestic visits to climate change and clean energy legislation. He’s only spoken about it during a few times during his weekly addresses and when he announced lifting the ban on offshore drilling in many areas. A quick search through the White House website for health care yields 616 entries as of today, while for energy and the environment there are 64 (that’s roughly 10%). Clearly, if President Obama wants to succeed on climate change and clean energy legislation, he’ll have to campaign more aggressively for it to tip the political balance towards getting the necessary votes in the Senate to pass the strongest bill possible.
Furthermore, he will have to come up with the kind of language that will resonate with people across the country. When he campaigned for health care reform, he spoke of insurance industry abuses, unreasonable premium hikes, and a ballooning federal deficit, all of which were key messages that resonated with people across the country. However, when President Obama speaks of climate change and clean energy, he talks about innovation, leadership, and job creation, failing to emphasize the loss of jobs to other countries, the impacts of floods, droughts, and rising temperatures that are not uncommon across the country, and the damage that fossil fuels incur on the environment, health, and the pockets of U.S. citizens. It is important to emphasize how climate change and clean energy legislation will spur new industries and create new jobs, but it is also important to emphasize how action will benefit citizens directly, just as he did with health care.
This is perhaps the best time to get it right. The BP oil spill and the coal mine disasters have exemplified our need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels altogether, while our continued loss of clean energy manufacturing jobs to other countries will continue to make it harder to fight the high unemployment rate. We all witnessed how President Obama mustered public support to pressure Congress to act on health care. There is no doubt it can happen again for climate change and clean energy legislation, but it will require President Obama to “do the right thing,” step up to the plate, and campaign aggressively for legislation before campaigning for the Congressional elections erases all chances to get anything done this year. This one is just as up to the Senate as it is to President Obama.