In the last week, President Obama has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, focused his first campaign ad on clean energy, visited the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time, devoted seven minutes to energy in his State of the Union speech, and touted fossil fuels and renewables out west.
It was an environmentally charged stretch for a president setting out for re-election, and the media noticed.
As soon as Obama rejected Keystone, The Washington Post posited that it would do “nothing to delay a debate that could help define the campaign fight between Republicans and Democrats.” The “battle has only just begun,” the paper reported a day later. “The question is how the battle will be waged in the months to come.”
Yes it is, and a variety of outlets have been trying to provide answers.
Since he was in the Senate, environmentalists have criticized Obama for being soft on the oil and gas and coal industries. But he ran for president on a strong energy and environment platform that pleased greens. The failure of cap-and-trade legislation led him to abandon his pledge to address climate change, however, and in the fall, he angered environmentalists when he thwarted the EPA’s plan to tighten smog standards and then offered to open more areas off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.
Those offenses haven’t been forgotten, Reuters’ Deborah Zabarenko reported Thursday, but his actions in recent months indicate an effort to change course:
For a Democrat who won the White House with strong green credentials, Obama has kept his environmental policies well below the radar for much of his presidency.
The trip to the EPA, the rejection of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline, the long-delayed roll-out of regulations on mercury pollution and auto fuel efficiency standards suggest this is changing as Obama’s re-election campaign gets into gear.
Most of the sources that Zabarenko quoted suggest that Obama has little to gain by trying to be more pro-business or more pro-fossil fuel than his Republican rivals. Even Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public-opinion polling at the libertarian America Enterprise Institute, which generally opposes environmental regulations, conceded that the strategy could pay off.
“We don’t know how big the environment vote is, but in a close election everything matters, and you certainly want to appeal to environmentalists,” she said.
There are signs that the appeal is working.
The Los Angeles Times highlighted a study in which a mix of fifty Democrat, Republican, and independent swing voters “armed with dial meters” recorded their reactions to the proposals in Obama’s State of the Union address. The Times should have stressed that Democracy Corps, a research firm with strong ties the Democratic Party, performed the study. Nonetheless, the results were interesting. Viewers reacted almost as strongly to Obama’s call for more investment in renewable energy as they did to his mention of Osama bin Laden’s death.
“The passages of the speech that talked about phasing out subsidies for oil companies and competing with China and Germany for new developments in wind power and solar energy did particularly well,” the Times reported.
Obama didn’t exactly shun fossil fuels, however. He rejected Keystone XL on logistical rather than ecological grounds, and after doing so, one of his climate and energy advisers, Heather Zichal, emphasized the administration’s commitment to oil and gas development on the White House blog and in an op-ed for USA Today. David Roberts, a senior writer for the environmental news website Grist, called it “pathetically defensive, pro-fossil fuel messaging” on Twitter.
Yet Roberts cut Obama some slack when he expressed similar support for oil and gas in the State of the Union (see the president’s “blueprint for making the most of America’s energy resources,” released Thursday). He “never expected Obama’s support for fossil fuels to wane,” and saw the remarks about fossil fuels as a setup for even stronger statements about clean energy.
“Greens should be honest with themselves,” Roberts wrote. “The energy issue is a tough nut to crack for a national politician. Contrary to what a lot of folks seem to think, Obama can’t change the political climate or public opinion with the power of his words. No president, including The One, is willing to get out very far ahead of public opinion; presidents react to it more than they shape it.”
Whatever the case, on Thursday, Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were out west trying to win support of the administration’s energy platform, and it was nice to see local news outlets spotlight contradictions in the “all of the above” strategy. At the Albuquerque Journal, John Fleck pointed out that Chu’s appearance at Sandia National Laboratories’ Solar Thermal Facility made for an “ironic photo op.”