Obama’s radical environmental strategy

January 6, 2009

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Most successful elected leaders must disappoint their most ardent supporters at some point, as the bright hopes of an election campaign give way to the complex realities and constraints of governing, and need to occupy and retain the political center-ground to win re-election.

The trick of really successful leaders is to let supporters down gently to avoid turning disappointment into frustration and anger, retaining allegiance and support even when the maximum agenda goes unfulfilled and compromises must be made. Political supporters have to be given enough policy gains to be kept loyal, even as some cherished objectives fall by the wayside.

Despite the enormous outpouring of goodwill to the incoming president, or perhaps because of it, President-elect Barack Obama will be no exception to this iron rule.

The high hopes for the administration (cultural reconciliation between left and right, poverty alleviation, fairer distribution of economic rewards, renewed growth, financial reform, decisive action on climate change and “peace in our time”, to name but a few) have run far ahead of even the most successful president’s ability to deliver them in four or even eight years.

So the real question as the new administration prepares to take office is where will it dare and be able to be radical, and where will it be forced by circumstances to be more conservative.

Early indications suggest the administration may disappoint its progressive supporters with a cautious approach to foreign policy, the economy and finance, but its moves in climate change and energy efficiency could be far bolder.


Like any president, Obama will have to decide which battles to fight and which to avoid, where to spend his political capital, and where to conserve it by hewing closer to the status quo. Presidents respond to the agenda forced upon them as much as they shape it.

Despite the “change” rhetoric, the new administration may find its options severely limited. Financial crisis at home leaves little room in the budget for new spending mandates beyond short-term stimulus.

While blaming the banks for causing the financial crisis is attractive, the system is probably not strong enough to withstand wholesale reform at the moment, so the administration may have to settle for more piecemeal changes.

Abroad, the administration also faces the familiar Gordian knot of intractable disputes: how to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo, deal with Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions, engage European governments and become involved in the Middle East process.

Moreover, Obama’s commanding lead in electoral college votes (365-173) masks a narrower margin in the popular vote (53 percent to 46 percent). For all the enthusiasm about “change”, almost half the nation voted for Obama’s rival Senator John McCain. The president faces re-election in four years and cannot afford to stray too far from the political center.

The new president has two options. Try to enact a raft of radical reforms quickly in the hope of changing the whole political game by the time the next election is fought — the kind of “transformative” presidency with which scholars have credited Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan — though perhaps only in hindsight. Or pick a few carefully chosen battles and settle for competent administration and marginal improvements in other areas.

So far, Obama’s rhetoric implies the former, but his cabinet picks incline to the latter. His most enthusiastic supporters at home and abroad may be disappointed.

In many areas, circumstances may force the new president to be a gradualist rather than a great reformer, which risks disappointing core groups at home and foreign governments hoping for a more radical break with the past.

During the long campaign for the presidency, Obama showed himself to be one of the finest students of politics; despite the soaring oratory, he is well aware that politics remains the art of the possible.

The presidential transition has stressed bringing on board Washington insiders with previous governing and legislating experience (Clinton at State; Gates at Defense; Daschle at Health and Human Services; Blair and Panetta in intelligence; Geithner and Summers at the Treasury and on the White House National Economic Council) rather than innovative or iconoclastic visionaries from outside the Beltway.

Nevertheless, the administration needs to find at least some areas in which it can make a decisive break with the past and stress change rather than continuity, if only to maintain the enthusiasm of its core supporters among progressives and liberals.

Climate change and energy policy is shaping up to be the area where the incoming administration can make some bold gestures designed to reach out to domestic supporters and European governments while disappointing their hopes elsewhere.


Obama’s selection of Steven Chu to be secretary of energy last month was an indication of the importance he places on using science and technology, as well as a full range of fiscal incentives, to tackle climate change and reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels.

The Department of Energy (DOE)’s primary mission is stewardship of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, which absorbs more than half of the department’s $26 billion budget. DOE funds some research into alternative fuels. But until now the leading role on climate change and energy conservation programs has been taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, with DOE playing only a minor supporting role.

So picking Chu, who has been one of the most prominent and outspoken advocates of using tax increases to force reductions in energy use, and a strong supporter of technological solutions to climate change in his role as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sends a strong message about the incoming president’s priorities.

Combined with the selection of other strong climate change advocates to head the EPA and Council on Environmental Quality, Chu’s forthcoming nomination suggests the administration is preparing to be quite radical in this area.

Given the multiplying problems for the incoming administration’s climate and energy agenda, it may need to be.

For previous columns by John Kemp, click here.


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Obama is absolutely on the money with his policies that are going green. That is what the world wants to buy for themselves, and for their childrens future. Good on him for having the guts to actually follow this path. He will succeed, and the changes that are coming will revolutionise the world & capitalism for ever. Bring on a cleaner, polution-free world, bring on the electric car, and renewable energy. Death to oil, coal, gas guzzling cars, raping & pillaging. It won’t be easy to kill off the polluters, but renewable energy will eventually do it.
All I can say to the masses is get on board now or miss out on the gold rush.

Posted by Brad | Report as abusive

This is bad news for the American economy. Alternative energy means expensive energy for us while the rest of the world will use the less expensive fossil fuels that we disdain. Our energy costs go up across the board for American businesses and consumers making us non-competitive in the world marketplace. So begins the descent into economic misery led by Big Green. Just look at California as an example. It has rapidly been increasing its energy costs through big green mandates for the past ten years and it is now leading the nation in job losses and economic decline. Obama will do the same for the whole country. That is why I think that Obama will be a one-term president. When people see what Big Green does to their pocketbook, they will revolt.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Don’t turn the use of Fossil Fuels into a Sin tax…that isn’t only a silly thing to do…the gov’t will just get more money, because we NEED the oil. We need to completely change the way we live…besides, it’s been said hundreds of times, using wind in 3 states can easily run the country if used enough…3 STATES…jeez, we can just spread it out if we don’t want to cram all of that turbine in one area. Besides, we can use geothermal even easier…and power the entire country from that alone…but everyone is waiting for the Gov’t to do something about it..and if anyone knows anything, is that, the legislative branch doesn’t touch anything unless it is on fire, radioactive, and threatening their re-election. What should be done is major investment by our state energy providers or private companies…but as of now it isn’t a money making idea so it isn’t being done…what they need is initiative…initiative that is almost impossible to muster…meh..whatever I guess, free and easy energy isn’t an important step for America right?

Posted by Brenden | Report as abusive

They just want more centralization and control. The government will not improve this situation. People are ignorant to believe otherwise. People are all too eager to place hope in these elected officials that will do nothing to solve the problem but tax it and make it harder for others to get a piece of the pie. Hopefully people will wake up one day.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

In my neck of the woods (Central Ontario, Canada which is well south of the 49th parallel) we have just completed the coolest and dampest summer in living memory.
The forecast is for -40°C. (-40°F is you are so inclined) over several days.
Thank goodness for global warming. I’d hate to see it get much chillier.

The global warming issue is becoming more of a stretch every day. This is exactly why you now hear this termed “Global climate change” rather than warming as recent data supports that the earth is in a cooling trend. This is absolutely a political issue that has permeated the fabric of our culture via media saturation to a point where most people rarely question its validity. The cap-and trade idea is nothing more than a huge scheme that will create a slush fund for politicians and AL Gore those that designed this will profit while the average American is forced to pay higher taxes for fuel. Do we really think Russia and China will get on board and be held accountable? This is a childish, stupid idea that will do nothing but help the creators of this mythical catastrophe get even more rich. The climate has always changed and always will. Anyone that buys into the thought that this is a problem that we can possibly change can purchase the Brooklyn Bridge from me for $1.00

Look at this from a perspective of energy independence rather than that of climate change and the protagonists in this argument will find much they agree on. America has always used it’s technological prowess to gain competitive advantage and this should be no exception. Alternative energy is more expensive at the moment, but fossil fuels will eventually run out. By investing now in alternative sources of energy, America will see itself with a clear advantage over those nations that have not garnered the technologies and expertise in their use. Yes in the short term that may mean that energy is more expensive, but look to the long term – that is where the benefits are realised.

Posted by jwh | Report as abusive

I have to agree with the man from Ontario. In fact, global warming is actually a welcome idea for most of the world and would benefit much of the worlds population. Set aside the Al Gore scare-tactic of twenty foot rise in sea levels this has been proven to be a dramatic exaggeration by the IPCC which is where Mr.Gore got his information in the first place. The Maximum numbers they predict are 6 inches to 2 feet in the next Century. This is no cause for alarm and they admit this is merely a prediction with a large margin of error. I once ascribed to the same group-think that most of you do. I just started asking questions and doing research on my own and was frankly shocked at what I found to be a conspiracy theory that most people believe is foolish to dispute. I’m sorry, I want clean air and water like everyone else. I just don’t like being lied to and forced to accept conditions on my lifestyle because some very wealthy people decide they have the money and power to lower my standard of living. I am not a sheep.

Posted by Matt C. | Report as abusive

Re Matt Christie’s comment: “”The global warming issue is becoming more of a stretch every day. This is exactly why you now hear this termed “Global climate change” rather than warming as recent data supports that the earth is in a cooling trend.” As a point of significant clarification, the change in terminology was coined by none other than Republican strategist Frank Luntz in his infamous environmental strategy memo to the Republican leadership in 2003 (see pg. 142 of the memo). As reported at the time, “The US Republican party is changing tactics on the environment, avoiding “frightening” phrases such as global warming, after a confidential party memo warned that it is the domestic issue on which George Bush is most vulnerable.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/20 03/mar/04/usnews.climatechange

Posted by lgcarey | Report as abusive

I write for a blog that addresses some of these issues and contains links to resources that shed light on this subject- http://1progressiveguy.blogspot.com/
I have to say that I agree with JWH in that this debate is more about the framing of the argument than the argument itself. However, I must point out that the consequences of each point of view and intended actions/reactions are very, very different. Ultimately, I think both sides agree that we want to use limited if any fossil fuels when this becomes feasible and we all want to reduce or eliminate our dependency on foreign oil.
While I agree with JWH on this I do respectfully disagree that we can simply use our technology to make fossil fuels obsolete in the near future. In addition, I am sorry but I am an American and I do not accept paying higher taxes on fuel for a political agenda. Prior to the economic meltdown we all lived in a Country based on free-market Capitalism. The idea of legislating mandates that will ultimately decide the type of car I drive and the size of the house I can afford to heat and cool is completely inline with modern European Socialism. They have had super expensive fuel for many years. The technological solution? Tiny, crappy, little cars that Americans wouldn’t care to drive and the best part-these cars would never be deemed safe enough for American roads. So, the problem is much more complicated than simply dependence on foreign oil. Personally, I love my SUV and I think I have every right to drive it even if I am not a wealthy politician. Not to mention, taxes on fuel raise the price on every type of consumer good from food to electronics through shipping costs. And, every small business owner that requires a truck, carpenters, plumbers, furniture stores, appliance stores, movers, etc. all of these will see an increase in the cost of doing business that will be passed on to the customer/consumer and likely reduce the amount of business these entrepreneurs are able to secure. These are the reasons that alarmist views on the environment that demand lifestyle changes for all Americans other than those that are wealthy enough not to be affected (Al Gore comes to mind…) are taken very seriously by ordinary citizens that want clean air and water but also appreciate America for the freedoms we are promised and deserve.

Posted by Matt C. | Report as abusive

This debate is one centered on an issue that is critical on a longterm basis if you believe that all the weather we are experiencing has something to do with “global warming”. It exists because some believe that CO2 levels will increase exponentially as world population grows leaving us with a warnmer environment, a consequence some see in a negative light on all fronts.

Currently the CO2 levels stand at .06 % of the atmosphere. A reading of above 20% CO2 in the atmosphere is needed to begin to induce death. That is a difference of 19.94% between the CO2 levels today and the levels needed to induce death. CO2 has several isotopes, some which are mitagatable under the normal photosynthesis and hydrologic recycling processes; then there is the portion of that .06% CO2 level which is not. So the actual level of critical CO2 which comes from the burning of fossil fuels which is not recycled by the photosynthesis/hydrological process adequately is only an unknown portion of this .06% CO2 reading.

The affects of the release of CO2 on the environment is, for obvious reasons, more significant near large cities because large cities do not have the number of green plants needed to process the CO2 let off by breathing, and of course, the greater concentration of fossil fuel burning industies and vehicle emissions is in the large cities. So the cities experience much higher levels of CO2 build-up than roural areas. This condition could be eased by planting more green plants in cities, increasing low-emissions public tranportation and eliminating most car traffic in the inner ciies. Designating full traffic lanes for bicyles and other non-polluting venues, which could be rented like baggage carriers are at airports, curbside would be significant measures toward reducing these emissions.

I can see the need for larger cities to build neuclear power plants, or other low-carbon emmissions alternatives, to reduce CO2 emissions and accommoate increasing populations. Large cities are responcible for most of the unmittigated CO2 emissions and they have enough population to split up the costs to build expencive power plants…a neuclear plant costs up-wards of $17 billion, for instance.

In this economy I cannot possibly support placing a new tax on CO2 emissions for businesses, since most businesses today are experiencing very rocky times now. Paying a new tax, or having to buy new expencive emissions reducing equipment to avoid being taxed could cause more lay-offs, or bankrupcies. They may not even be able to get the credit they need to finance the new green upgrades, or sell be able to sell enough inventory to pay the payments for the new up-grades. This is just a fact of the current economic reality.

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