Some people worry that Obama seemed to put energy independence on the “back burner” by suggesting his clean energy plan was the “first thing” he would cut to make room for the $700 billion
bailout rescue deal. Significantly, that isn’t the message heard by at least one group of crucial voters — undecideds.
During the debate, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg ran a dial group of 45 undecided voters in St. Louis, Missouri. “These voters had an unmistakably Republican tilt, voting for President Bush by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 and self-identifying as 33 percent Republican and 27 percent Democrat.” What did they hear?
On one of the most important issues to these voters — who will do a better job achieving energy independence — Obama … more than doubl[ed] an already impressive 20-point lead on the issue to 44 points. Obama scored some of his highest marks on our dials when talking about the need to make America energy independent. Even those who felt [Obama lost] the debate agreed in our follow-up focus groups that Obama was the more persuasive candidate on energy independence.
How is it that some seasoned clean energy folks listening to the debate came away with one message, whereas undecided voters came away with the exact opposite message? Welcome to the real world of political messaging!
Let’s look at what Obama said on clean energy during the debate. First, he made clear that a revolution in energy policies was one of his top priorities. When asked by moderator Jim Lehrer what priorities he might he have to give up as President because of the $700 billion financial rescue plan, he said:
But there’s no doubt that we’re not going to be able to do everything that I think needs to be done. There are some things that I think have to be done …
We have to have energy independence, so I’ve put forward a plan to make sure that, in 10 years’ time, we have freed ourselves from dependence on Middle Eastern oil by increasing production at home, but most importantly by starting to invest in alternative energy, solar, wind, biodiesel, making sure that we’re developing the fuel-efficient cars of the future right here in the United States, in Ohio and Michigan, instead of Japan and South Korea …
And I also think that we’re going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities.
Also, making sure that we have a new electricity grid to get the alternative energy to population centers that are using them.
That is a strong, thoughtful, and unequivocal message.
Since Obama didn’t really answer the question directly — nor should he have (see below) — Lehrer asked the question again, and here is where Obama made what I would call a tactical debate mistake:
LEHRER: But if I hear the two of you correctly neither one of you is suggesting any major changes in what you want to do as president as a result of the financial bailout? Is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: No. As I said before, Jim, there are going to be things that end up having to be …
LEHRER: Like what?
OBAMA: … deferred and delayed. Well, look, I want to make sure that we are investing in energy in order to free ourselves from the dependence on foreign oil. That is a big project. That is a multi-year project.
LEHRER: Not willing to give that up?
OBAMA: Not willing to give up the need to do it but there may be individual components that we can’t do.
This was a tactical mistake I attribute to Obama’s classic progressive Democrat desire to try to sound reasonable and answer the questions he’s asked. In fact, once you’ve answered a journalist’s question, you need to stick with that answer. It is well known that journalists keep asking the same question in different forms over and over again until they get the answer they want, since they know that most people can’t monolithically stay on message.
Obama should have been prepared for this question, since it is kind of obvious, and many in the media had been raising it for days once the $700 billion figure was floated. A better answer was:
Jim, I can understand why you would think that this financial bill will require a major reordering of priorities. The Bush administration and the Republicans have shown that they can’t manage our economy or our government. They put us in this economic mess, and they horribly mismanaged previous crises like the response to hurricane Katrina. When I’m president, my financial team will work with the best economists and businessmen and women, like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Warren Buffett. The $700 billion dollars we are talking about here is not a handout, but an investment in things like mortgage-backed securities that are currently very undervalued in this financial meltdown. My economic team will make sure we get good value for the taxpayer dollar, plus a share of the upside in any company that we purchase bad loans from. Like CNBC’s Jim Kramer says, this can be done as a good investment of the taxpayers money and we’re going to get it all back.
But I digress. Obama didn’t say that. Sure all you clean energy sophisticates out there heard Obama seem to say that he was going to back off individual components of his plan. But independents and undecideds heard him repeat his commitment to make energy independence a top priority, a “big project,” a “multi-year project,” one that he is “not willing to give up.”
That is the message that was delivered to most voters. Indeed, they probably heard someone who was being reasonable about his willingness to not do everything at once if economic and financial conditions changed.
Remember, until this debate, a great many voters weren’t paying any attention at all and had no idea that Obama had made clean energy a top priority. Further, most voters probably can’t remember the last presidential candidate they heard speak in such strong and detailed terms about energy independence. Al Gore didn’t do it. John Kerry didn’t do it.
The other key point is that Obama employed the single most important rhetorical device: repetition. A little later in the debate he said:
Two points I think are important to think about when it comes to Russia …
The second point I want to make is — is the issue of energy. Russia is in part resurgent and Putin is feeling powerful because of petro-dollars, as Senator McCain mentioned.
That means that we, as one of the biggest consumers of oil — 25 percent of the world’s oil — have to have an energy strategy not just to deal with Russia, but to deal with many of the rogue states we’ve talked about, Iran, Venezuela.
And that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling, but we only have 3 percent of the world’s oil supplies and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. So we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem.
What we’re going to have to do is to approach it through alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel, and, yes, nuclear energy, clean-coal technology. And, you know, I’ve got a plan for us to make a significant investment over the next 10 years to do that.
[Points out his opponent’s record on the issue.]
And so we — we — we’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to energy independence, because this is probably going to be just as vital for our economy and the pain that people are feeling at the pump — and, you know, winter’s coming and home heating oil — as it is our national security and the issue of climate change that’s so important.
This is a very strong statement again, and reaches out directly to middle-class voters who are suffering the pain at the pump or who have to pay for home heating oil. Hey, he even threw in climate change!
Did he back off the issue of energy independence and clean energy? Quite the reverse. Obama delivered his strong energy independence message again and again. The largest possible audience heard him say that this was a top priority because it is a matter not just of economic security and job creation, but also of national security and climate change. That is winning strategic messaging.
Anyone out there who thinks this is not going to be one of Obama’s highest and most immediate priorities isn’t listening.