June, 15th 2010

The real meaning of Obama's speech tonight

– Liz Mair

The Twitterverse is alive with commentary about President Obama's rather lame speech tonight about BP/energy/shiny objects (readers can select which of these think is applicable).

But the real meaning of the speech tonight can, I think, be found when considering these excerpts:

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party - as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.  Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks.  Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power.  Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development - and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.   

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear [sic] hearing in the months ahead.  But the one approach I will not accept is inaction.  The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. 

This has but one translation, and everyone who cares about energy and environmental policy should be paying attention because it's a big 'un: Barack Obama is not wedded to cap-and-trade and is setting things up so that if and when he signs into law something that is not cap-and-trade, nor something even possible to confuse with it, the big story will be "President gets groundbreaking energy bill," and not "President fails to get legislation he's been advocating for four straight years passed."

Got that?  The popular wisdom in Washington, DC, is firstly that the votes simply do not exist in the Senate to pass cap-and-trade.  Secondly, the popular wisdom is that while it's true that Democrats were emboldened by getting health care passed and signed into law, the time simply no longer exists on the congressional calendar for what could well be a knock-down, drag-out fight involving Senators up for re-election this year who don't want attack ads targeting them on tax hikes via cap-and-trade to run. Both of these things are, in my view, true. But more importantly, the President's weak tea speech suggests that some people in the White House think so, too-- otherwise, you can bet the case would have been made overtly, and eloquently, for cap-and-trade.  It wasn't.  The speech referenced "principles" espoused by both Obama and members of the House who voted for cap-and-trade, but "principles" is not synonymous with the big kahuna in this instance-- and you can tell because there are people out there who like things like Renewable Energy Standards, but who are skeptical about cap-and-trade.

In practice, I'd be willing to bet that what ultimately gets pursued, and what (if anything) Obama signs into law will be something that looks pretty similar to what Sen. Dick Lugar is proposing-- which is notably not cap-and-trade.  There are problems with this legislation, and plenty of people are going to raise issues with it.  But it does not contain the single element that aggrieves most "no" votes on cap-and-trade in the Senate, which gives it a certain advantage in terms of palatability.

And I'm pretty sure, based on tonight's speech, that Obama thinks that's what he'll be signing-- assuming he can get that through before everything genuinely grinds to a halt this year. [intro] 



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