Last week, Josh Green had an op-ed in The Boston Globe called “Even an oil spill won’t move Washington,” which points out the bizarre fact that the BP Gulf oil disaster seems only to have entrenched politicians in their pre-existing positions. They asked me to write a short response for their website. I did, and it’s called “How Obama screwed up on climate change.” Here it is:
Josh Green’s assessment of the politics of the Gulf oil spill is grim but accurate. It’s just the latest illustration of how sclerotic and rigid Senate politics have become. If a catastrophe of this magnitude isn’t enough to jar lawmakers out of their self-interested or ideological positions, it’s difficult to imagine what could.
Well, actually, it’s not that difficult to imagine. Green mentions it in passing, but it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Obama’s failure, which did not begin with the spill. For months, Obama has made it clear that passing a climate bill is not, contrary to his campaign rhetoric, an achievement upon which he is willing to stake his presidency.
First he pushed health care to the front of the line; after that political capital–draining marathon, it was financial regulation. In recent weeks, Obama stood by passively as majority leader Harry Reid, partially for self-interested reasons, pushed immigration to the front, which led to the climate bill’s single Republican supporter, Lindsey Graham, jumping ship. Even now, in the wake of the spill, Obama’s support for climate legislation remains bloodless.
At this point, with so little time left in the legislative session and mid-term elections looming, it’s difficult to imagine a climate bill getting the attention it needs amidst financial regulation, immigration, and a Supreme Court pick.
Now, as always, there is one thing and one thing alone that could elevate climate action to the level of national imperative: a single-minded, passionate campaign from Obama. While there is (barely) still time, there is no sign that he plans any such campaign. And so the oil spill will pass by, inert, just the latest tragedy in an endless string visited on Americans by fossil fuels.
Adding: I’ve been in D.C. for a week or so, talking to all kinds of folks, and this is one thing every single person agrees on: Only Obama can salvage the climate bill. I keep asking, “Well, will he? What’s his plan? Have you heard anything from the White House?” The answer is blank stares. Nobody knows. From what I hear, the BP Gulf oil disaster has the White House totally and completely freaked out. They’re scared not to respond to public outrage; they’re scared to be seen as coming down too hard on oil and thereby raising gas prices. The situation is incredibly volatile and from where I’m sitting it looks like they’re just being reactive.
Obama needs to man the hell up and remember why people rallied to him in 2008. He can take control of the situation; he can drive the narrative; he can bring the American people along with him. They’re desperate for it. What’s happened to him?