Has Obama's 'Sputnik Moment' Sputtered Out?

Pete Souza, WhiteHouse.gov/Public Domain

Last year, Barack Obama's State of the Union address was filled with grand, sweeping pledges to revitalize and transform the United States as we know it. A bold jobs program would put Americans to work, a "Sputnik moment" would set the course for the U.S. to run on 80% clean energy by 2035, and, yes, high speed rail track would be laid across the nation. We would "Win the future".

We didn't.

Partisan gridlock continued unperturbed in Congress, the GOP blocked his jobs bill, Republican governors picked apart his high speed rail plan, and there was no policy progress to speak of on the renewable energy front. If anything, the clean energy sector was beaten back politically last year, after the GOP tried mightily to turn the bankruptcy of Solyndra into a scandal (and mostly failed) and worked to kill vital tax credits for the renewables industry.

This year, needless to say, Obama didn't aim so high. Instead, he returned to the same politics of compromise that he's trumpeted since he took office. For example, he vowed to bolster the clean energy industry—but also offered strong support for natural gas, and endorsed fracking to get it. He moved (once again) to eliminate oil subsidies, but called to open 75% of the available hitherto untapped land for oil and gas drilling, too.

Obama Goes "All of the Above"
Obama went so far as to cop the GOP's terminology for such a plan, calling it an "all of the above" energy strategy; that eye-roll inducing euphemism for "fossil fuels are #1". In other words, we went from 'we need a clean energy revolution' to fossil fuel-y business as usual in just one year. Why?

Ostensibly, the plan here is to prove, in an election year, to conservatives and 'moderates', that he's an eminently reasonable man. That he's willing to meet his opponents halfway. This doesn't always go so well, especially on energy issues.

Remember two years ago, when there was that bitter partisan battle raging over legislation that would put a cap on carbon emissions? Obama offered to dole out offshore drilling leases and provide federal loan guarantees for nuclear power—two big pots of gold for the GOP—to gin up goodwill with his opponents, to spur compromise. After he signed them over, recall what he got in return? Nil. Zip. Zilch. The GOP continued fighting cap-and-trade tooth and nail; and there was never a single good faith, across-the-aisle discussion about moving the policy forward afterwards. And they painted him as anti-drilling anyway. To this day, Republicans continue to hammer Obama for allegedly cracking down on domestic oil production—though in reality, he's done the opposite and opened up more lands than his predecessor.

Flacking for Fracking
This time 'round, he's citing some seriously inflated natural gas numbers, rolling out unverified industry talking points that there will be hundreds of thousands of new jobs and that shale reserves will last a hundred years. He's calling for fracking, too, risking angering his base—anti-fracking is a powerful movement, if you haven't heard—to curry favor with an industry and political establishment that's going to attack him anyway. (Grist's David Roberts would say this is due to Obama's failure to understand he's operating in a world of 'post-truth' politics.)

Now, there was plenty of good stuff in the speech too: Yes, we absolutely need to preserve tax credits for renewable energy. Yes, we do need to eliminate multibillion dollar oil subsidies. A clean energy standard would be great. And Obama does deserve a pat on the back for pushing through regulations on mercury pollution that will save lives and reduce toxic emissions. And he really didn't back down from supporting clean energy, even after the Solyndra misfire.

But what's the path forward here? Just 'do all this stuff'? To me, this gassy grab bag of an energy policy shows that Obama has absorbed a bit too much of the conservative-flavored conventional wisdom—that fossil fuels are king, and clean power is still something of an idealistic aspiration—and is treating renewable energy as a Republican would have five years ago. In fact, Obama sounds suspiciously like early campaign-era McCain … just without the focus on climate change.

The C-Word
Granted, Obama has been blunted by the GOP at every turn, and has few policy options at his disposal. But there's one little thing that he's largely ignored throughout the last three years that could add some ammo to his arguments: That climate change is, you know, real. And that's the missing link.

Instead of muttering "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change," he could have said something like "We're in trouble. We're breaking temperature records all over the place. Did you see the crazy-ass weather last year? Were you in Texas at all? We need to get on this. And we can."

Beyond merely being a blast of honesty, that would lay the unifying foundation for the clean energy platform we really need. Climate change is, of course, the reason we need more clean energy jobs, more investment in renewables, and so on. By letting the political winds dictate his energy policy, Obama is losing the chance to articulate the fact that addressing climate change offers vast opportunities for economic growth.

Cleantech is a booming industry that will be a major, major global force in coming years. And that's because every other nation on earth knows that we've got a carbon problem. Obama needs to tap into this logic to advocate for a cohesive, forward-looking energy policy that will enthuse supporters and accurately outline the challenges we face—not backslide into fossil fueled muck.

With the extreme weather and the Republicans' off-putting anti-science demagoguery, Americans are again opening their ears to climate change and the powerful clean energy solutions needed to keep it at bay. But without hitting on the root of the problem, and without being honest about fossil fuels, Obama's Sputnik moment will surely sputter out.

Tags: Barack Obama | Clean Energy