If Obama Had Chosen Energy Over Health Care ...


Photo: Lance Cheung, Flickr, CC BY

It's an interesting question for followers of both politics and climate issues: How would things have turned out if Obama had thrown his weight behind clean energy legislation instead of health care reform? Would we now be looking at a freshly passed law designed to map out the future of the American energy economy and to stimulate job growth in sustainable sectors -- while curbing greenhouse gas pollution and ramping up renewables? Would Democrats have benefited from focusing on the economy instead of health care, and enjoy a rosier outlook than the bleak one that currently looms over the November elections?

What would be different if Obama had chosen energy?The little thought experiment is plucked from the end of David Brooks' recent piece, The Alternate History, in which he imagines a scenario where Obama and the Democrats handled their policy objectives in such a way as to maintain popularity in the face of a sagging economy and a crippling unemployment rate.

Here's a bit of his imagining of that alternate narrative:

April brought the cruelest fight: whether to spend the rest of the year getting health care reform or a new energy policy. Obama decided to do energy first. The economy was uppermost on everybody's mind. Americans were wondering where new innovations would come from, what new jobs would emerge.

By doing energy first, Democrats were able to spend the entire summer talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains. Obama toured one small business after another, and got his energy bill. In the fall, he gave a series of major speeches under the heading: "Our Children's Economy." He laid out a strategy for a century of growth.

Americans didn't like all of it. But this wasn't conventional big government liberalism. The Democrats seemed to be a serious party attending to serious things. When November 2010 rolled around, the unemployment rate was still high, but Democratic leaders had prepared voters for that. In the meantime, America was rebuilding its core, strengthening itself for better days ahead.

Hindsight is of course always 20/20. Obama clearly overestimated his stimulus bill's ability to get the motor of the economy running faster than it did, and to have a much larger impact on job creation. That probably factored into his decision to move with health care rather than energy, despite the fact that the House of Reps had already taken the tough step of passing a solid climate bill.

But, in the long-term, addressing climate change trumps health care reform in terms of importance, and doing so indeed could have included a great many job-creating provisions and initiatives. No doubt that there would have been a similar 'grass-roots' uprising (the Tea Party or otherwise) if a cap and trade had been enacted -- enacting just about any piece of the agenda Obama promised to pursue during his campaign would have provoked similar sentiments -- and that the GOP would have fought his every move tooth and nail in much the same fashion as they did.

But Brooks is right about one thing -- doing energy would have given Obama and the Democrats a chance to engage the public on the economy, and to make genuine strides towards genuine, sustainable job creation. And, more importantly, it would have given them a potentially once-in-a-decade opportunity to pass national policy to mitigate climate change.

Instead, Joe Romm bluntly writes, "Future generations are likely to view Obama's choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions."

More on Obama and Energy
Will Failure on Climate Ruin Obama's Legacy?
Obama : Energy Bill Must Price Carbon
Americans Support Obama's Energy Policy: New Poll

Tags: Barack Obama | Clean Energy | Congress | Global Climate Change | United States

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