The failed presidency of Barack Obama, post-election edition
The country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and [large] Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun.
That’s from “One brief shining moment for clean energy,” my piece on the passage of the House climate bill last June.
Obama hasn’t merely failed to get a climate bill. Given the self-described (and self-inflicted) “shellacking” the president received Tuesday, he has made it all but impossible for a return to such an alignment of the stars this decade.
Indeed, he has, arguably, poisoned the well for the next president, not merely because of the “shellacking,” but also by his failure to use his bully pulpit to be an unabashed defender of climate and clean energy action. Team Obama helped create the broad-based misperception that those issues are political losers, in spite of every poll to the contrary, in spite of the fact that in the one place where a broad coalition combined with political leaders who were genuine climate hawks, Californians won the clean energy and climate trifecta, including a stunning 20-point win preserving their landmark cap-and-trade climate bill.
And so the chances have dropped sharply of averting multiple catastrophes post-2040 — widespread Dust-Bowlification; multi-feet sea level rise followed by a rise of 6 to 12+ inches a decade until the planet is ice free; massive species loss; the ocean turning into large, hot acidified dead zones; and ever-strengthening superstorms that bring devastation to country after country that equals or surpasses what happened to Moscow and Pakistan and Nashville and New Orleans.
And all this happened without even a national debate on this most important of all issues.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper …
Future generations will judge us with unimaginable harshness and justifiably so. Whom will they blame most?
As discussed in my June 30 post, most of the blame should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable. Who could have guessed just a couple of years ago, that the GOP champion of climate action would now trash a bill considerably weaker than the one he tried to pass twice?
Indeed, because their denial has been given a free political pass (with notable exceptions such as California and Colorado), the ideologues have actually embraced denial of basic science as a litmus test, along with opposition to even the most business-friendly, Republican-originated strategies for reducing emissions.
That is precisely why action is possible only once in a generation: Modern conservative ideology has become 100 percent anti-conservation. Indeed, this is why Tea-Party “conservatism” may be the most radical political philosophy ever to achieve significant political power in this country, since it ultimately will destroy the American way of life as we have come to know it, leading to untold misery and far bigger government than this country has seen in the post-WWII era.
As long as the Tea Party and Big Oil and the special interest polluters are driving the GOP, then serious domestic mitigation and a global climate deal is all but impossible, which means the government will inevitably get into the business of telling people where they can and can’t live (can’t let people keep rebuilding in the ever-spreading flood plains or the ever-enlarging areas threatened by sea level rise and DustBowlification) and how they can live (sharp water curtailment in the southwest Dust Bowl, for instance) and possibly what they can eat. Conservative action against climate action now will force big government in coming decades to triage our major coastal cities — Key West and Galveston and probably New Orleans would not be savable, but what about Miami and Houston?
The GOP tsunami in the House was so large, that it is quite difficult to see how it gets undone until the mid-terms of the next Republican president. Let me note that, for those who are thinking that the GOP nominates Sarah Palin in 2012, the last time a president had a landslide victory after a dreadful midterm loss, 1984 — a stunning 49 states carried, 59 percent of the popular vote, a victory by 17 million votes — here is what happened in Congress:
This victory also yielded gains for Reagan’s Republican Party in the House, where they picked up a net of sixteen seats from the Democratic Party. The Democrats nonetheless retained a commanding majority in the House and gained [two] seats in the Senate.
So even if the economy is recovering robustly and the Republicans nominate a Tea Party extremist like Palin and Barack ‘No Narrative’ Obama suddenly figures out how to do serious messaging, the House is still unlikely to swing back to the pro-science, anti-pollution side (let alone convince themselves that this issue is not a political loser, which many in the media and right winger are desperate to push as the conventional wisdom). I’d add that the anti-pollution side is also defending more Senate seats than the anti-science side in 2012 and stands a very good chance of losing the Senate entirely — if not in 2012, then almost certainly in 2014 when even more seats are up.
The possibility that the House flips again and there will be 60 votes in the Senate for serious climate action — or for significant funding for clean energy — this decade is just not terribly plausible. We can certainly wait for the inevitable climate Pearl Harbors, but they would have to be a bunch of them this decade worse than these and they would have to be unambiguously linked to human-caused warming by the media.
So another pre-condition for serious action is that the media coverage not merely stop getting worse, as it has over the past couple of years, but actually starts to get considerably better. But the media has been letting go of its environment and science reporters, and coverage of this issue is increasingly dominated by political reporters and editors who are most interested in the horse race aspect. For them, the mere fact that this
issue lost tells them many of them all they think they need to know about the science.
The anti-science crowd and their disinformation campaign and associated think tanks, pundits, and right-wing media deserve about 60 percent of the blame. The media, perhaps 30 percent.
So “only” 5 percent of blame goes to Obama and his team (along with Senate Democrats, scientists, environmentalists, and progressives).
But of course, from a historical perspective — and, I suspect, from the perspective of most progressives — there are two huge differences between Obama versus the disinformers, media, and centrists/lukewarmers. Obama is the president of the United States, a person who can single-handedly determine the agenda and the national debate. Second, those other people don’t know any better.
The president has surrounded himself with people like John Holdren and Steven Chu and Jane Lubchenco who know perfectly well that the science is increasingly dire about what happens on the business as usual emissions path.
Heck, the administration published this!
Yes, we let all this happen because we weren’t willing to divert a few percent of our wealth from dirty, inefficient technology and infrastructure to clean, efficient technology and infrastructure — an investment that would have paid for itself many times over not just in avoided climate damage, but cleaner air and water, reduced dependence on oil (and avoided economic dislocation from peak oil), and myriad other benefits.
So don’t hold your breath waiting for someone to publish a book about us in the 2050s titled The Greatest Generation. Quite the reverse — it’ll be titled The Ponzi Scheme Generation.
This is a blunder of historic proportions.
Here is what Obama had to say, post-shellacking, about the most important issue facing the nation and the planet, the one that will determine his place in history and the health and well-being of billions of people in this century and the next:
I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year. And so it’s doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t agreement that we should have a better energy policy. And so let’s find those areas where we can agree.
We’ve got, I think, broad agreement that we’ve got terrific natural gas resources in this country. Are we doing everything we can to develop those? There’s a lot of agreement around the need to make sure that electric cars are developed here in the United States, that we don’t fall behind other countries. Are there things that we can do to encourage that? And there’s already been bipartisan interest on those issues.
There’s been discussion about how we can restart our nuclear industry as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gases. Is that an area where we can move forward?
We were able, over the last two years, to increase for the first time in 30 years fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks. We didn’t even need legislation. We just needed the cooperation of automakers and autoworkers and investors and other shareholders. And that’s going to move us forward in a serious way.
So I think when it comes to something like energy, what we’re probably going to have to do is say here are some areas where there’s just too much disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, we can’t get this done right now, but let’s not wait. Let’s go ahead and start making some progress on the things that we do agree on, and we can continue to have a strong and healthy debate about those areas where we don’t….
With respect to the EPA, I think the smartest thing for us to do is to see if we can get Democrats and Republicans in a room who are serious about energy independence and are serious about keeping our air clean and our water clean and dealing with the issue of greenhouse gases – and seeing are there ways that we can make progress in the short term and invest in technologies in the long term that start giving us the tools to reduce greenhouse gases and solve this problem.
The EPA is under a court order that says greenhouse gases are a pollutant that fall under their jurisdiction. And I think one of the things that’s very important for me is not to have us ignore the science, but rather to find ways that we can solve these problems that don’t hurt the economy, that encourage the development of clean energy in this country, that, in fact, may give us opportunities to create entire new industries and create jobs that – and that put us in a competitive posture around the world.
So I think it’s too early to say whether or not we can make some progress on that front. I think we can. Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end. And I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.
And I think EPA wants help from the legislature on this. I don’t think that the desire is to somehow be protective of their powers here. I think what they want to do is make sure that the issue is being dealt with.
Not exactly a climate hawk anymore — not exactly someone who sounds like he is going to go to the mat on this issue in 2013 even if he were reelected in a landslide that flips the House.
No, he’s more like a climate woodpecker, banging his head against a tree over and over and over and over again, in the hopes of digging out a tiny morsel.
Let’s not actually talk about the science. No, what’s important to Obama is to say that we’re not going to ignore the science, whatever it is, because, you know, the first rule of team Obama’s climate fight club is don’t talk about climate science.
And if Obama seriously thinks that his EPA wants “help from the legislature” on what to do about climate, well, I’m afraid that headbanging has resulted in permanent damage. The only thing the next legislature is going to do concerning the EPA’s climate efforts is try to s
top it and Obama from doing anything for the foreseeable future to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — especially with the likely return of Lisa Murkowski to the Senate (“Clean air Lisa vs. dirty air Lisa“).
I have written about Obama’s dreadful messaging many times:
- TNR: “The Unnecessary Fall of Barack Obama”
- Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?
- Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”? Part 3: How bad messaging creates a self-fulfilling failure of will.
- Part 2: Drew Westen on how “The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan”
Michael Tomasky expresses my view — and many others — in The New York Review of Books:
My own answer to the question of how things got this bad has less to do with whether Obama should have been more liberal or more centrist than with his and his party’s apparent inability, or perhaps refusal, to offer broad and convincing arguments about their central beliefs that counter those of the Republicans. This problem goes back to the Reagan years. It is a failure that many Democrats and liberals hoped Obama could change — something he seemed capable of changing during the campaign but has addressed rather poorly once in office. In American politics, Republicans routinely speak in broad themes and tend to blur the details, while Democrats typically ignore broad themes and focus on details. Republicans, for example, speak constantly of “liberty” and “freedom” and couch practically all their initiatives — tax cuts, deregulation, and so forth — within these large categories. Democrats, on the other hand, talk more about specific programs and policies and steer clear of big themes. There is a reason for this: Republican themes, like “liberty,” are popular, while Republican policies often are not; and Democratic themes (“community,” “compassion,” “justice”) are less popular, while many specific Democratic programs — Social Security, Medicare, even (in many polls) putting a price on carbon emissions — have majority support. This is why, when all else fails, Democrats try to scare people about the threat to Social Security if the GOP takes over, as indeed they are doing right now.
What Democrats have typically not done well since Reagan’s time is connect their policies to their larger beliefs. In fact they have usually tried to hide those beliefs, or change the conversation when the subject arose. The result has been that for many years Republicans have been able to present their philosophy as somehow truly “American,” while attacking the Democratic belief system as contrary to American values. “Putting us on the road to European-style socialism,” for example, is a rhetorical line of attack that long predates Obama’s ascendance — it was employed against the Clintons’ healthcare plan as well.
But now consider the specific problems facing Obama, a mixed-race (but visibly black) man with an exotic name and a highly atypical biography for a president. Add in also the greatest economic crisis in eight decades, and governmental responses to the crisis that, to an energized and organized right wing, seem to smack of socialism. One result is that we have a new faction, the well-financed Tea Party movement that has been able to arrogate to itself practically every symbol of Americanism and to paint the President, his ideas and policies, and his supporters as not merely un-American but actively anti-American. In a Newsweek poll released in late August, nearly a third of Americans actually agreed that it was “definitely” or “probably” true that Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”
In the face of all this, it seems not to have occurred to a single prominent Democrat, from Obama on down, to say something like: We love our country every bit as much as they do, and we believe patriotism means expanding access to health care, protecting the environment, and imposing effective new rules on Wall Street. Democrats have thus crippled themselves by adapting comparatively limited ideas of legitimate political action, and by ceding to Republicans the strong claim of love of one’s country.
This is not the sort of thing that is measured by polls, but I believe the Democrats’ hesitance to tie their programs to larger beliefs has been demoralizing to liberals and confusing or off-putting to independents. The impression is left with voters that Republicans are fighting for the country, while Democrats are fighting for their special interests. The pre-presidential Obama powerfully made this kind of broad, patriotic appeal, both at his 2004 convention keynote address and in his stirring Jefferson-Jackson Day speech in Iowa in November 2007. But any sense that the Democrats are now making a coherent argument about what kind of country they want has vaporized. Underneath all the Democrats’ bickering about such issues as health care and the performance of Tim Geithner, that is their real problem.
The Congress that convenes next January, even if it remains in Democratic hands, will be markedly different from the one that met as Obama first took office. The party’s margins in both bodies — now seventy-seven in the House and eighteen in the Senate, counting the two independent senators who caucus as Democrats — will be significantly lower. Given the number of centrist and conservative Democrats who will remain but who will likely go along with the GOP, chances of passing any progressive legislation will be close to nil.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper …