In his latest column, Bill McKibben lays a wide range of sins at the feet of Barack Obama, accusing him of “fibbing and spinning” on climate change. He says Obama is “not particularly focused” on climate (while linking to coverage of an Obama speech dedicated to climate). He says that by putting health care ahead of climate change, Obama “guarantee[d] that health care would occupy most of the year.” He says that by focusing on green jobs and energy security rather than climate change, Obama has “left the door open for climate deniers to have a field day.” Obama’s administration is “spinning” by focusing on the still-common 450 ppm number for atmospheric CO2 rather than the 350 ppm favored by some activists and scientists.
I could not be more sincere when I say that I wish Obama were responsible for health care reform dragging on, for climate deniers and delayers, for the lack of ambition U.S. negotiators can promise the international community. If these things were a matter of Obama simply not trying hard enough, perhaps he could be persuaded to try harder. He’s a reasonable guy!
Alas, despite the far-reaching powers people tend to ascribe to the U.S. presidency in general and Obama specifically, it seems to me the real culprit is — yes, I’m going to say the same thing again, I’m boring! — the U.S. Senate.
Bill says Obama is using the Senate like Bush used China, as an excuse for delay. The analogy is apt insofar as China was out of Bush’s control and the Senate is out of Obama’s. But it’s inapt in that there’s plenty Bush could have done without China and he didn’t; there’s plenty Obama can do outside the Senate and he’s doing it. When it comes to matters under executive branch control, the progress over the last 10 months has been amazing — new fuel-economy rules, new enforcement of efficiency standards, EPA moving forward on CO2 regulations, energy standards and goals for all federal departments, tons of green stimulus money, national retrofit programs, delay of mining and drilling permits, sustained bi- and multi-lateral international climate diplomacy … the list goes on. Obama is doing what a president can do — more than any president has ever done.
Ultimately, then, Bill’s beef comes down to Obama’s supposed refusal to “push the Senate as hard as [he] possibly can.” Tellingly, there are no details offered on what this pushing might involve, just some handwaving at “spending political capital.”
But how to push the Senate? That’s the most important question! Surely it deserves a little more attention.
Bill Clinton tried getting out ahead of Congress to prod it to action. He sent Gore to Kyoto promising ambitious action on climate. He handed Congress a health care reform bill that he (or rather his wife) had hashed out behind closed doors in the White House, ready to go.
Conservative Democrats bridled; they felt no loyalty to his agenda; they rejected the Kyoto treaty; they picked at the health bill and were happy to let it die.
Obama has been trying the opposite strategy. He is very carefully instructing his international negotiators not to promise anything that the Senate hasn’t already signed on to. (That means waiting for the Senate to pass a bill.) On both health care and clean energy, he has laid out a set of broad principles and let members of Congress work out their own bills, cheerleading occasionally from the sidelines. On health care, the progress has been impossibly slow, dragging out longer than anyone not totally cynical about the Senate could have predicted. But it’s been progress. On clean energy, the strategy worked like a charm with the House clean energy bill. Obama mostly let Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) handle it, with some crucial behind-the-scenes help. The administration strongly endorsed the bill when it passed. A roughly similar bill got to the Senate and raced through Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) progressive Environment and Public Works Committee.
And … conservative Democrats bridled; they felt no loyalty to Obama’s agenda; they’re trash-talking Copenhagen; they’re picking at the clean energy bill and are happy to let it die. (See: Jim Webb.)
That’s two very different executive strategies that ran into similar wankery from conservative Senate Dems. Maybe our conclusion should be that the problem is conservative Senate Dems. Many such Dems come from states that voted for McCain and/or Bush. Obama has no leverage over them; support from Obama isn’t important or necessarily helpful for their electoral prospects. Unless they feel constrained by party discipline like their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, or God forbid feel the pull of conscience, they have no incentive to work to pass the progressive agenda Obama campaigned on. Nor do they have reason to accept any treaty his administration signs that goes beyond what they’ve already agreed to. Dems desperately need their votes, but they don’t desperately need other Dems, and there’s just very little in Obama’s arsenal with which to “push” them. The dysfunction of the Senate is structural; it’s not in Obama’s power to change, no matter how much he tries, no matter how much capital he spends.
The difference between Clinton’s flamboyant rhetorical pushing and Obama’s relatively laid-back style is this: Obama’s still has a chance to work. However frustrating it may be to activists who want bigger words, bolder promises, and faster action, the fact remains that the Dems are within reach of passing a health care reform bill and have at least laid out a path to passing a clean energy bill and ratifying a binding international climate treaty in 2010. It’s too early to deem Obama’s leadership a failure.
Yes: political realities can be changed. The kind of broad grassroots movement that Bill McKibben himself has been so instrumental in creating can shift the tectonic plates. But a crucial step in that process is to accurately identify what and who is blocking progress. It’s not Obama who deserves the ire of the 350 army. It’s Max Baucus (D-Mont.). It’s Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). It’s Jim Webb (D-Vir.). It’s Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). It’s the filibuster! These targets are harder to reach and in many ways less satisfying to battle, but they are the real locus of delay and inaction.