We are not a nation willing to suspend cynicism or partisanship these days, except perhaps in the grip of a traumatic event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since the initial shock of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, this tragedy has become more like an ongoing epidemic, in President Obama's analogy, and that makes it hard to mobilize the nation.
Obama pulled out all the stops Tuesday night on stagecraft -- the rhetoric of war and battle, the painfully formal Oval Office setting, the crisp talking points and action verbs. He declared that he won't stand for congressional "inaction" on energy. But he punted, big time, when it came to specifying what kind of action he wants.
Since he began his presidential campaign in early 2007, Obama has been talking about moving the country away from fossil fuel dependence by putting a price on carbon pollution. The closest he got to that in his Oval Office speech was to praise a House-passed energy bill that he said "finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses." That's a euphemism for "finally makes dirty energy like oil and coal more expensive than clean energy," by capping overall carbon emissions and letting companies buy and sell pollution permits (the much maligned cap-and-trade system).
The president's vagueness offered the worst of several worlds. He did not make a strong case for putting a price on carbon – in fact his glancing allusion probably went unnoticed by 90 percent of America. But it gave Republicans all the opening they needed to claim Obama is selfish, manipulative, arrogant and exploitive -- all those words, in fact, are in the statement issued by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, along with an accusation that Obama is trying to "ram through a devastating job-killing energy tax." That would be cap-and-trade, the phrase that cannot be uttered.
Obama drove some liberals to distraction with that omission, the lack of a detailed framework for the road ahead, and his stated (if not actual) receptivity to ideas from any source, including Republicans. Sound familiar? This is exactly the way Obama approached the monumental health care battle. Whatever you want to call it -- avoidance, strategic ambiguity, faux bipartisanship -- it got him to the finish line after countless other leaders had failed.
The politics of energy are as impossible as health care, if not more so; as impossible as the environmental and economic situation in the Gulf. The public is polarized and ambivalent about issues ranging from how to cope with the spill to how to move forward. Gallup reports this week that 81 percent of Americans think BP's response to the spill is poor or very poor -- and yet also reports that 49 percent of Americans (most of them Republicans) still think BP should lead the response.
Obama is in no-win situations on oil-industry regulation and federal spending to help Gulf residents and the coast (there will be more of both, despite his vows to hold BP to account, and inevitably there will be a conservative backlash to both). He's also in a no-win situation on a six-month moratorium he called on deepwater oil drilling, while a commission investigates what went wrong. Gulf-state officials want to forge ahead -- yet what if he lifted the moratorium and another accident occurred? "I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue," Obama said in his speech. He's covering himself, sure, but he's also behaving exactly in character -- cautious, careful, gathering the evidence, making a considered decision.
As far as trying to wean ourselves off oil and coal and onto homegrown, renewable energy, as Obama insists we must, there are fault lines by region, by party, by ideology, by industry. Some conservative Democrats voted no on the House bill. Some GOP moderates who once supported cap-and-trade are now repentant (such as Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, running for the Senate).
In the Senate, 58 Democrats and two independents miraculously united to break a filibuster and pass health reform last year. Getting to 60 will be much harder this year. Democrats lost a seat in Massachusetts and their own coalition is fragmented as senators try to protect power companies, coal companies and others. Republican moderates are under huge pressure to oppose the system conservatives call "cap-and-tax." The irony is that industries are not necessarily opposed to a cap-and-trade system. In fact, as my colleague Patricia Murphy reports, oil company executives told Congress this week that they support cap-and-trade.
Senate Democrats will meet Thursday to discuss their options, and hope to have a bill on the floor next month. Proponents of a comprehensive energy and climate bill smartly enlisted many affected industries in the drafting process. Sen. John Kerry, the chief sponsor, says the coalition supporting it is so broad that this should be an easy vote for senators. That is wishful thinking, given the approaching midterms and the political risks for Republicans who might consider crossing the aisle.
Still, it would be a mistake to conclude from Obama's address that he is ready to go small on energy. Being non-committal is not the same as being uncommitted, as we learned during the 18-month health-care battle. Obama and his party, aided by presidential resolve during the endgame, pushed the limits of the possible and shifted the terms of the country's social contract. They did it through painstaking negotiations and a willingness to settle in some cases for less than change now -- for experiments and frameworks that may set the stage for future change. It's a model that could work again, if enough people in Washington have the patience, energy and political nerve to try.
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