Obama's Curious Climate Strategy
Should the White House have taken a page from its health care playbook?
The White House and Senate advocates are finally making a big push to get a climate bill moving. But has the Obama administration already blown its chances of passing legislation this year?
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to unveil their much-anticipated climate and energy legislation in the coming days. (It was supposed to be released ahead of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, but Graham put the kibosh on that idea, and they're now reportedly introducing it on April 26).
In advance of the bill's unveiling, whenever that may happen, Obama's team has been making a big pitch for action. Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council last week called for "a new gestalt" on energy policy. And energy and climate adviser Carol Browner has made it clear that the White House wants comprehensive legislation that tackles the problem of climate change, not just a narrowly focused energy bill. But some Senate watchers are wondering whether the administration made a big strategic blunder. The two best bargaining chips the White House had to offer wary senators, especially Republicans—that is, expanded offshore drilling and incentives for nuclear power—have already been given away.
It's interesting to contrast the Obama administration's strategy on climate with the one it followed to advance health care reform—which, despite the rollercoaster ride of setbacks and controversies, was ultimately successful. Obama didn't present Congress with draft health care legislation, but he did lay out a clear set of principles that he wanted the legislation to contain. When it came to flashpoints like the public option, he refrained from making such proposals a deal-breaker, but nor did he abandon them prematurely. And unlike health care, where it was possible to make significant reform without the public option, a climate bill that doesn't include a meaningful cap on carbon emissions isn't a climate bill at all.
On climate, however, Obama has handed the bill's opponents two major concessions: Massive financial incentives for nuclear power, and a significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. And as far as anyone knows, he hasn't extracted any concrete commitments in return. "I don't know what the Obama strategy is," says David Jenkins, government affairs director at Republicans for Environmental Protection. If fence-sitting senators know that oil drilling and nuclear incentives are going to happen with or without their vote on climate, says Jenkins, "Where's the incentive for them to do something about climate?"
"It's not clear to me that [these concessions] pick up any votes," adds Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation.