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The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 1

UPDATE: Sens. Reid and Kerry made it official today – the mostly dead climate bill is now extinct. It has passed on! It is is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-CLIMATE BILL!!

… the disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming. Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout. Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress. In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act.

But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away….

That’s from a must-read Rolling Stone obit “Climate Bill, R.I.P.” excerpted below.

As I’ve said many times, Obama’s legacy — and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W. Bush — will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change (see “Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy?“). If not, then Obama — and all of us — will be seen as a failure, and rightfully so.

There would be no other way to judge all of us if we (and the rest of the world) stay on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, which risks warming most of the inland United States by nine degrees or more by century’s end and which could lead to sea levels 3 to 6 feet higher (rising perhaps a foot or more a decade after that), cause the Southwest — from Kansas to California — to become a permanent dust bowl, and transform much of the ocean into a hot, acidic dead zone (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water “). All of this would make the BP oil disaster fade into distant memory.

By the end of the third decade of this century, all of American life — politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive — will be forever transformed by the climate and energy challenge.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate in stark terms both the why and how of the sustainable clean energy vision. Last April, he said, “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” In October, he said at MIT, “There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs.”

Pretty (harsh) words. But the question now is whether he really believed what he said. On the one hand, he made bigger investments in clean energy than all of his predecessors combined and put into place fuel economy standards that represent the biggest greenhouse gas reductions in US history and his EPA has declared carbon dioxide a pollutant that must be regulated because it endangers public health and he personally intervened to stop the Chinese from making Copenhagen a total failure. These are major achievements that under any other circumstances would make Obama the greenest president in US history.

But on the other hand — or really it is the other hand, heart, brain, and rest of body — he has let any chance of comprehensive climate legislation die without a fight. Many of us have documented this emerging story piece by piece over at past year, but Rolling Stone puts it all together:

A comprehensive energy and climate bill – the centerpiece of President Obama’s environmental agenda – is officially dead. Take it from the president’s own climate czar, Carol Browner. “What is abundantly clear,” she told Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview on July 8th, “is that an economy-wide program, which the president has talked about for years now, is not doable in the Senate.”

But the failure to confront global warming – central not only to Obama’s presidency but to the planet itself – is not the Senate’s alone. Rather than press forward with a climate bill in the Senate last summer, after the House had passed landmark legislation to curb carbon pollution, the administration repeated many of the same mistakes it made in pushing for health care reform. It refused to lay out its own plan, allowing the Senate to bicker endlessly over the details. It pursued a “stealth strategy” of backroom negotiations, supporting huge new subsidies to win over big polluters. It allowed opponents to use scare phrases like “cap and tax” to hijack public debate. And most galling of all, it has failed to use the gravest environmental disaster in the nation’s history to push through a climate bill – to argue that fossil-fuel polluters should pay for the damage they are doing to the atmosphere, just as BP will be forced to pay for the damage it has done to the Gulf.

Top environmental groups, including Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, are openly clashing with the administration, demanding that Obama provide more hands-on leadership to secure a meaningful climate bill. “We really need the president to take the lead and tell us what bill he’s going to support,” says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund. “If he doesn’t do that, then everything he’s done so far will lead to nothing.”

But Obama, so far, has shown no urgency on the issue, and little willingness to lead – despite a June poll showing that 76 percent of Americans believe the government should limit climate pollution.

The question I’ve been asked most often by people in California is why has Obama walked on this issue.

I have discussed this in previous posts, especially “The unbearable lameness of being (Rahm and Axelrod),” and I’ll be coming back to it again in future posts since I’m quite sure it is going to be a great puzzle to future historians in the hothouse, who will not at all be interested in the story of healthcare reform or financial services reform or the deficit or the war in Afghanistan or all those other issues that Obama and his team think will determine his legacy.

Fundamentally, Rahm and Axelrod simply don’t get global warming. They bought the nonsensical argument based on bad polling analysis that there was no good way to talk about it (see Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing and Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?).

They bought the even more nonsensical argument that comprehensive energy and climate legislation was not a politically winning issue, see Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” — ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong” or many, many polls (see also links at the end):

While many of us had been assured that Obama got it, that he really believed what he said in his speeches, as opposed to sharing the climate-destroying, legacy-destroying views of Rahm and Axelrod, ultimately Obama runs the White House and is responsible for what actually happens and what he himself says:

From the start, Obama has led from behind on climate change. Shortly after he took office, the White House seemed inconvenienced when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made climate change a top priority, moving swiftly to push a cap on carbon pollution through the House. Rep. Henry Waxman, who played an instrumental role in the legislation, was frustrated by the White House’s refusal to come up with specifics to guide the effort. “Browner tried to produce a detailed policy position,” says Eric Pooley, author of the just-published The Climate War, a definitive account of the legislative fight. “But that effort was blocked.” Obama’s top political advisers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, pointedly avoided the legislative battle, viewing it as politically unwinnable.

So Waxman moved on his own. Working with Rep. Ed Markey, he caught the White House off guard by cutting the difficult political compromises that were necessary to gain the support of coal-state Democrats and bringing the bill to a vote. It took Al Gore sitting down with Emanuel and going over voting lists, name by name, to persuade the White House to throw its muscle behind the bill and pressure congressional holdouts to fall in line. On June 26th, the measure passed by the narrowest of margins, 219-212.

But despite having a climate bill in hand, the White House decided to put its muscle into passing health care reform. Emanuel promised climate advocates that the administration would return to global warming in early 2010. By then, however, the drawn-out fight for health care was on life support, and Democrats no longer held a 60-vote edge in the Senate. The momentum on climate legislation had been squandered. “It’s a shame, because the window really was 2009,” Pooley says. “It wasn’t going to be easy, but if you don’t even try, you’re not going to get it done – and they didn’t even try.”

By waiting until after the health care fight, the Obama administration also allowed the energy industry and its conservative allies to mobilize their troops and hone their anti-climate rhetoric. Taking a page from the “death panel” lies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and energy-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity waged an all-out campaign against the climate bill, indelibly branding common-sense penalties on climate polluters as “taxes.” With no one making an effective pitch for economy-wide carbon limits, “cap and trade” quickly became the bill that dare not speak its name.

I’m not certain I agree with that 100% — but I’d say it is 90% right. The polling on the climate bill was always strong but the White House always thought it was a political loser.

Since team Obama sucks at messaging so badly, it’s impossible to know whether any strategy would have worked (see Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”? Part 2: Drew Westen on how “The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan”).

As I’ve said many times, when you are catastrophically bad at messaging, you simply can’t tell if you failed because of your messaging or whether you failed because you had a bad strategy, too. Bad messaging trumps everything, especially in the face of the most effective disinformation campaign in human history.

But as Pooley says, if you don’t try than you can’t possibly succeed, which brings us to the oil spill:

… the disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming. Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout. Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress. In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act.

But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away. On June 15th, the president – a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan – sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words “carbon” or “emissions” or “greenhouse” – not even the word “pollution.” The president’s sole mention of “climate” came in a glancing description of the “comprehensive energy and climate bill” that the House passed. In a moment that cried out for direction-setting from the nation’s chief executive, Obama brought no concrete ideas to the table. Restating the need to break our addiction to fossil fuels, he stared at the camera and confessed that “we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there.” He didn’t challenge Americans to examine their own energy habits. He didn’t rally his fellow Democrats into a fight with the Republican Party of “Smokey” Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who later apologized to BP. Far from offering a clarion call for action, Obama said, meekly, that he would listen to give senators from both parties a “fair hearing in the months ahead.” Then he asked us to pray.

Climate advocates were stunned. “That speech wasn’t anything different than Bush gave in an energy address,” says Pica. “There was nothing new about climate and energy – it didn’t move the debate forward. If he was going to recycle the same old talking points, maybe he should have just let Robert Gibbs give a little talk about it to the press corps.”

Climate advocates have been indeed been stunned by Obama’s stunning indifference to the defining issue of our time in his presidency over the past few months.

… the president never picked up on the calls for action. Fed up, nine high-profile environmental groups – including Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists – wrote a scathing open letter to the White House, pleading with Obama not to fumble away this opportunity. “A rapidly growing number of our millions of active members are deeply frustrated at the inability of the Senate and your administration to act in the face of an overwhelming disaster in the Gulf, and the danger to our nation and world,” the letter warned. “The Senate needs your help to end this paralysis. With the window of opportunity quickly closing, nothing less than your direct personal involvement, and that of senior administration officials, can secure America’s clean-energy future.”

Since Obama ignored the call for direct personal involvement on comprehensive climate and energy action, one can only assume he is just not that into it. Future generations and future historians will judge him accordingly.

People ask me “What about next year?“ If Obama is not going to use the biggest fossil fuel disaster in US history to push for serious climate action when he has the biggest Democratic majorities he is ever going to see, why on Earth would he try under far worse political conditions, when the likelihood of success is far lower, after the House has been burned by believing Obama would back them on their tough vote.

The chances of anything beyond a utility-only greenhouse gas control regime in the next two years is vanishingly small — and even that would require Obama to utterly reverse his indifference or, seeing as how it appears to be a character trait, a tragic flaw in the Shakespearean sense, it would require Obama to utterly reverse his (globally) cool detachment.

And speaking of Shakespeare, here’s a classic quote that captures the moment Obama missed with the BP oil disaster:

We at the height are ready to decline.

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

I’ll have more to say on that in future posts.

UPDATE: For the sake of completeness and so as not to be misunderstood by those who aren’t regular readers and didn’t see my June 30 post (”Republicans demagogue against market-oriented climate measures they once supported“), most of the blame should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable. Who could have guessed just a couple of years ago, that the GOP champion of climate action would now trash a bill considerably weaker than the one he tried to pass twice? (see Rolling Stone on “The Climate Killers: 17 polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb the climate catastrophe.”)

And if you are keeping score at home in the blame game, the media is the second most culpable group for their generally enabling coverage — see Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” along with And the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism goes to …

Those two groups deserve about 90% of the blame (60-30?), I think (assuming that we assume the 60 vote antidemocratic super majority requirement is unchangeable). The other 10% goes to Obama and his team (along with Senate Democrats, scientists, environmentalists, and progressives) — and let’s not forget the “Think Small” centrists who also helped shrink the political space in the debate (see “Michael Lind of the New America Foundation misinforms on both climate science and clean energy“).

Can’t cry so might as well laugh:

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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