Obama’s radical environmental strategy
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.
CHOOSING BATTLES CAREFULLY
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.
THE NEW ENERGY TRINITY
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.