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Obama Oil Speech: No Cap-and-Trade Doesn't Mean He's Given Up

4 years ago
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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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kpilker

If Company A emits 100 units of carbon, Company B emits 55 units of carbon and Company C emits 95 units of carbon they all emit a total of 250 units of carbon. Now if Company A recieves 85 carbon credits, Company B recieves 75 carbon credits and Company C recieves 90 carbon credits they all have a combined total of 250 carbon credits. Now the companys are allowed to buy and sell the needed/extra credits they have, how does that lower emissions? Unless the government lowers the pool of available credits at certain times then there will not be a lowering of carbon emission, just more money in someones pockets.

June 18 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

Let's face it. Obama is overmatched. We see more and more evidence every day...

June 17 2010 at 3:01 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
punnster

If you do not think Obama is going to use the oil spill to push his Cap and Trade bill you are incredibly naive. I can't help but wonder if he delayed actually DOING anything about the spill for it to be disastrous enough to help his carbon tax agenda agenda.

June 17 2010 at 1:24 PM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
Kenneth

His arrogant behavior is doing more damage to this country then good. What he wants to keep shoving through congress is only stalling any economic and job growth that would normally be taking place. People and businesses are holding tight not knowing what is next. Members of his own party refuse to run for reelection.His own party is trying so salvage something out of the November election which they view as a dramatic lose.

June 17 2010 at 10:29 AM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
caddopecan

Obviously, the solution to any problem is a new tax. Obama has structured his life around being the recipient of new tax money and then doling it out to gain power and favor. For all of his life this idea seemed to work, there was the benefit of the Reagan economy, i.e. lower taxes for Obama to raise and money available for him to tax and take. But, what Obama did not understand is that people can easily figure him out. So they stopped, waiting for him to go. Nothing, no economic growth, no hiring, nothing. Obama will leave a legacy of the worst president who created the worst period for the worst of reasons. Old ideology that is know to be the worst. The one good thing about this is that after he is gone, all the political dogma taught at the universities will be know to be a lie.

June 17 2010 at 10:14 AM Report abuse +23 rate up rate down Reply
Aztecman48

Cap and Trade is nothing but a way to tax the American public while giving Congress more of your money to spend. Someone commented that the oil companies are for it, why should they not be if they will simply pass on the taxes to the public sector. Cap and trade will do nothing for the reduction of greenhouse gases. Those with the money will simply buy the units of smaller business and put them out of business while continuing to pollute.

This administration is making every effort to hide their tax policy but if Americans will pay attention it is easy to see what they are doing. When Obama told the voters that he would not raise taxes on anyone making under $250,000, he didn't tell them that the taxes would be raised on utilities, autos, homes, gasoline, cigarettes, and all other consumer products. If he does away with the Bush tax cuts is he not raising taxes? Our represenatives say this is not a tax hike but watch the tax amounts on your paychecks.

This administration is doing everything in it's power to help the Unions while the average "Joe" on the street is getting the bills for it. Political decisions are being made for a minority of the people not the majority. It is time to send new people to Washington and to put term limits in place so that they do not believe that they have a right to be in Congress.

June 17 2010 at 10:07 AM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply
happylinda09

He declared that he won't stand for congressional "inaction" on energy. The agenda of the "puppetmasters" is to make Obama ram through another all encompassing law, so they can lock us down and take away the rest of American's freedoms. Michael Steele's comment about a job-killing energy tax is correct, and in addition to that, a whole bunch of American's money is going to be sent to third world countries to support them. Obama has not worked on providing jobs for Americans, and BP has been allowed to keep polluting America's ocean and continent. America's wealth is being given away instead of circulating it among Americans. If we could get these government people out of the way of America's best interests...Americans could get things going again on their own. Americans are highly intelligent people, especially those who don't watch television, propaganda, and can read between the lines of the news propaganda.

June 17 2010 at 12:07 AM Report abuse +23 rate up rate down Reply
dangelcash

"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." Ummm, I notice it and thought it was pretty important! So why do you think it went unnoticed by 90% of Americans? Assuming we're not paying attention, ignorant, realize anything Obama says is baloney? Which one is it?

June 16 2010 at 8:30 PM Report abuse +30 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dangelcash's comment
kfritzgp

I am inclined to think that 90% of America has lost their ability to truley think for themselves. Maybe it's time to turn of the TV. shut down the noise and do some real objective thinking for a change.

June 16 2010 at 8:45 PM Report abuse +21 rate up rate down Reply
Kenneth

It is easier if explained that people are getting disgusted with his empty speeches and no longer pay any attention. More and more people would rather watch paint dry then listen to his speeches.

June 17 2010 at 10:34 AM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

The long-suffering fishermen and shrimpers will not be much relieved to hear that the President's answer (as always) is higher taxes and more Federal power. Shrimping in solar-powered electric boats is not an answer, nor is attacking the businesses that supply energy helpful in solving either the energy problem or the well blowout problem.

If you could talk the well to stop spewing or do so by appointing a commission of Nobel scholars to study charming the well to sleep, we would have a great leader.
In the real world we have Obama.

June 16 2010 at 5:17 PM Report abuse +34 rate up rate down Reply
punnster

Yeah, wean us off oil and put us on the limited Similac electric formula. The problem is that our electric system is over loaded and that causes brownouts and blackouts. It will be years and billions before our electrical system will be able to handle our growing electrical demand as it is. OOps, didn't think of that? FIGURES.

June 16 2010 at 5:16 PM Report abuse +28 rate up rate down Reply

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