Barack Obama’s first official State of the Union speech is tomorrow at 6pm Pacific. Pondering what to say about it, I’ve become a bit nostalgic for Bush-era SOTUs. We’d all gather around the screen and wait for him to say the word “energy” or, in a few rare cases, “climate.” When he said the U.S. is “addicted to oil” it was news for weeks. It was all so simple then.
Expectations are higher for Obama; therein lies the rub. All of 2009 was a process of downsizing expectations. Now it seems the big news of the speech is going to be a three-year freeze in non-security discretionary spending. When you dig into the details there’s not much to this — it’s actually a two-year freeze, based on 2011 spending levels, which are unusually jacked up. It’s like using a 2005 baseline to say you’re cutting carbon (ahem). So the spending discipline is notional, which is good: It would, after all, be idiotic to substantially cut federal spending during an economic downturn with 10% unemployment.
But who is supposed to be fooled? It won’t make much impact on the deficit; it won’t reduce unemployment. It might win some token praise from Republicans and conservative Democrats, but in exchange for what? Will they lift a finger to help the rest of Obama’s agenda? Most of all, this could not be more demoralizing for a Democratic base that’s already choked down insufficient stimulus, grinding diminution of the clean energy bill, the implosion of health care reform, total regulatory capture by the financial industry, and a large increase in already stratospheric military spending.
While it may not be much of a substantive concession, Obama’s spending freeze is a high-profile (and panicky looking) affirmation of basic conservative framing: cutting the deficit is an appropriate response to economic downturn; government spending is bloated; there’s enough “wasteful spending” to trim our way to a balanced budget. As Nate Silver says, this is going to make every subsequent initiative more difficult:
Every time the Democrats propose a jobs bill, or a big investment in alternative energy, you’re going to have Krauthammer and Kristol chomping at the bit to go on Fox News and proclaim Obama to be a hypocrite. Pity Robert Gibbs trying to parse his way out of that.
The freeze sends the message that the increased support for clean energy RD&D in the stimulus bill was temporary; there will be no sustained national campaign to invest in a bright green future.
Given that its marquee proposal is a pound of flesh for conservatives in the guise of “focusing on the economy,” what can be expected from Obama’s speech with regard to the clean energy bill now in the Senate?
(As an aside: how inane is it that health care and clean energy bills that reduce the deficit will likely be eclipsed by … small-fry, purely symbolic gestures at reducing the deficit?)
There’s plenty Obama could do if he wanted to galvanize supporters and signal new commitment to his core objectives. He could threaten to veto any bill that doesn’t contain a hard cap on CO2 emissions. He could state clearly that revenue from a price on carbon should be divided between direct dividends to households and investments in a clean energy future. He could stand foursquare behind the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, with or without a bill. He could call for a substantial and permanent increase in the level of public investment in clean energy R&D and infrastructure. He could remind Congress that it stands in the way of international efforts to deal with an oncoming catastrophe.
Will he do any of those things? I doubt it. My guess is the best to hope for is an explicit mention of the need for a carbon cap alongside energy provisions in the Senate. Maybe this will be oblique, a reference to “comprehensive legislation.” Maybe it will even be explicit. But will Obama seriously lean on the Senate to strengthen the bill? Will he set high expectations or issue a moral call to action? Given the deference he’s shown Congress up to now, it seems unlikely.
One long-shot I’ll be watching for: in his upcoming jobs plan Obama will include a program to retrofit homes for energy efficiency. (“Home Star” — see here and here.) I know lots of work has been going on behind the scenes to shape this program and get it ready for rollout. Perhaps it will be highlighted in the speech; maybe there will even be a big number attached.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2009, it’s this: don’t get your hopes up.
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