Obama’s green team

Joe Romm says, “I honestly don’t know if it is politically possible to preserve a livable climate — but if it is, these are the people to make it happen.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but Obama has certainly put together a team capable of great things.

Coordinating is climate/energy ringleader Carol Browner, whose ambition and bureaucratic savvy (she ran Clinton’s EPA for eight years) are evidenced by the right wing’s hysterical attacks on her — expect them to ramp up over coming months. They’ll do everything they can to cast Browner as an rigid ideologue who doesn’t care about the economy, in contrast to the sober grown-ups on the economic team. It’s crap, but it feeds the media’s pre-existing biases, so it’ll probably stick.

Chu at energy is a brainy, committed green. Jackson at EPA and Sutley at CEQ are both top notch bureaucratic operators. At State are Hillary Clinton, whose record and campaign proposals on climate were just as ambitious as Obama’s, and her climate envoy Todd Stern. NOAA is in the hands of marine scientist Jane Lubchenco. Labor will be run by green-jobs advocate Hilda Solis (if the hold on her confirmation ever gets lifted).

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Together they form a substantial block in the executive branch pushing for smart green policy.

Three wild cards: Vilsack at Agriculture, Salazar at Interior, and LaHood at Transportation. These guys all have reputations as cautious moderates (whatever that means any more), so perhaps incremental tweaking is the sensible expectation. But they’ve all shown glimmers of ambition. If there is to be a pleasant surprise out of the Obama executive branch it may come from these quarters.

Obama’s economic team

Here things don’t look nearly so congenial to green action. There’s one bright spot: the office of VP Joe Biden. There are signs that Biden plans to be an active and positive influence on economic policy in the White House, pushing for labor- and middle class-friendly government activism. He’s hired Jared Bernstein, formerly of the Economic Policy Institute, as his top economic adviser — Bernstein understands how badly mainstream economics has bungled the climate issue. If Biden gets the crucial connection between green policy and the middle class — and the topic of the first meeting of his Middle Class Task Force suggests he does — he could be a real force for green ambition.

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But that’s about the only ray of hope. Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council; Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Timothy Geithner, secretary of the Treasury; Jason Furman and Diana Farrell, deputies at the National Economic Council — across the board, these are old-school Rubinites, suspicious of regulation and enamored of balanced budgets, free trade (for goods, not for high-skilled labor like themselves, of course), macroeconomic modeling, and defensive incrementalism on climate. See Steve Clemons or The New York Times for more on this.

It’s been heartening to hear that Browner is in the room when Obama meets with his economics team, but signs point to that team advising caution when it comes to carbon policy. These folks think carbon restrictions are a deadweight drag on the economy, that large government investments are inefficient, and that “command and control” regulations are passe — and will advise accordingly.

Obama’s assessors

There’s a cluster of agencies and people who are not directly involved in legislating or regulating, but who establish the frameworks by which laws and regulations are assessed: Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget (which monitors the spending and performance of executive branch agencies), Doug Elmendorf at the Congressional Budget Office (which supplies legislators with “official” economic data and assessments), and Cass Sunstein at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (which analyzes the cost-effectiveness of federal regulations).

Orszag did some great work on carbon policy when he was at CBO, pushing, e.g., for full auction of carbon permits. On the downside, he also pushed for “safety valves,” a sure sign that someone’s in the grips of doomsaying macroeconomic models. Sunstein is cognizant of climate but his fealty to cost-benefit analysis (with all its faults) makes him a dedicated incrementalist. Elmendorf is a Hamilton Project guy, temperamentally averse to fiscal policy (i.e. gov’t investment). He’s the one who worries me most, as CBO’s reports to Congress are taken as gospel and will influence the discussion around the costs/benefits of climate legislation.

Any of these guys could surprise, but risk-averse technocracy seems the rule of the day. We’ll wait to see when or if they have run-ins with greens.

Obama’s army

The biggest wildcard of all is the enormous, disciplined, and incredibly effective organization Obama built during his campaign, with thousands of grassroots volunteers coordinating online to mobilize at the neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. Everyone in the political world is dying to know how and when Obama will put that organization to use in the service of governing. Recently Obama announced that the campaign would morph into a group called Organizing for America, but its exact mission and character remain somewhat hazy. (Some details can be found in this Esquire profile.) Campaign manager David Plouffe promises it won’t be be used as a political cudgel … but if the fight over the stimulus bill shows anything, it’s that some cudgeling of senators is direly needed. Wouldn’t it be nice if recalcitrant Blue Dog Dems found that their refusal to support a strong climate bill brought thousands of phone calls, letters, rallies, and organizers to their states?

The ability to bring public opprobrium down on anyone who stands in his way amounts to a kind of Secret Weapon for Obama; he hasn’t used it yet, but it’s hard to believe he won’t. The question is, to what end?