The decision by congressional Democrats to not try to pass a major energy bill in this Congress, while receiving a modest amount of media attention, actually constitutes one of the sharpest rebukes to a sitting president in recent memory.
When President Barack Obama arrived at the White House with overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, passage of a broad, comprehensive energy bill that addressed climate change was viewed with near certainty and considered as likely as or even more likely to become law than health care reform.
House Democrats worked quickly to pave the way for enactment. They began by replacing auto industry supporter John Dingell of Michigan with Pelosi-friendly Henry Waxman, California, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And soon the White House, Chairman Waxman and Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey had rammed a climate/energy bill through the House.
That accomplished, attention shifted to the Senate. Willing business allies formed support groups, and efforts to reach across the aisle to recruit Republican support gained some traction.
But action has not been forthcoming. Despite the president’s endless number of appearances at new energy technology facilities, constant references to creating “green jobs,” countless hours being photographed behind the wheels of battery-powered and other “new age” vehicles and a somewhat shameless effort to argue that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should be used to justify passage of his energy agenda, we are further from passing a comprehensive energy bill in the U.S. Senate today than at any time in the Obama presidency.
It is hard to remember an issue on which a president armed with the kind of congressional majority Obama enjoys, has been handed such a stunning defeat on what was considered a cornerstone issue of his domestic agenda. While various presidential observers opine about the president’s various leadership strengths and weaknesses, there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the significance of what this setback on energy really means.
While some “experts” are debating the question of whether Obama is more like FDR or LBJ, it is simply impossible to imagine either of these masters of presidential power incapable of marshaling sufficient support to even bring one of their signature issues to the Senate floor.
So enough with the LBJ or FDR comparisons. The simple fact is that, to date, Obama’s performance on energy matters is strikingly like that of another of his Democratic predecessors: Jimmy Carter.
Like President Carter, Obama has made energy a central issue. And, like Carter, he has pulled out all the PR tactics in the book to try to underscore the need for action. Where Carter set thermostats at 55 degrees and donned sweaters to demonstrate his commitment to energy conservation, Obama has been bankrolling countless new clean tech businesses and visiting battery factories countrywide. And, as was the case with Jimmy Carter, the reward Obama has reaped for all his efforts is inaction on Capitol Hill and a public that is highly skeptical of his energy proposals.
The bottom line is that while no one opposes “green jobs” or conservation and energy efficiency, in a fragile economy support for the imposition of a major new regulatory regime that will potentially burden large sectors of the economy with additional costs, made passage of a cap-and-trade bill a much tougher sell. Suddenly, Rust Belt Democrats have been sounding like Sun Belt Republicans, and the wheels have come off the energy bandwagon.
Ultimately, Senate Democrats proved themselves to be old school politicians, so when it came to a choice of self-preservation or pleasing their president, they picked themselves. That so many had swallowed their electoral concerns to pass Obamacare certainly contributed to these decisions on energy and cap and trade. However, the fact that the president was allowed to carry the ball on energy to the bitter end before his party repudiated him without providing a more graceful exit strategy, makes this one of the ugliest rejections a president has faced at the hands of his own party in recent memory.
While it is not clear where energy policy will go from here, it would seem Obama’s legacy has received a hit from these events and that his weakness on energy will transcend to other issues — especially if the Republicans make major midterm election gains. A wiser course for the president would be to seek passage of achievable energy policies that could command bipartisan backing, such as legislation that would couple a national renewable energy standard with a similar nuclear energy standard, to expand both sectors in the coming decades. Such an approach would earn the president a much needed energy win at a key point in his presidency and actually signal an important step forward in addressing America’s long-term energy security efforts.
Spencer Abraham is a former U.S. secretary of energy under the George W. Bush administration and served as a Republican U.S. senator from Michigan. He is chairman and CEO of The Abraham Group, an international energy consulting firm and author of “Lights Out: Ten Myths About (and Real Solutions to) America’s Energy Crisis.”