Can Obama really compromise with the GOP?
Where -- if anywhere -- can President Obama and the incoming House of Representatives find compromise? A self-reflective Obama Wednesday came back to one issue in particular: energy policy.
"I don't think there's anyone in America who thinks that we have an energy policy that works," the president said. And then he pointed to related policies that might find bipartisan accord. "Whether it's natural gas or energy efficiency or building electric cars, we have to move forward."
All three ideas, which Obama supplemented later in his press conference with a nod to restarting the nuclear industry, could have found support in a Republican administration, and they reflect a much more traditional approach to energy policy than what the Democrats tried this year with their cap-and-trade proposals. Instead of a comprehensive energy policy, this is piecemeal, based on promoting a few particular paths to greening the economy through subsidy and other government action.
This approach doesn't produce rational energy markets. But it is politically rational.
This way, consumers don't see the costs of the policy on their energy bills -- they're just hidden in their income tax withholding -- and lawmakers get to send federal support to constituencies in their districts. Enough environmentally-minded lawmakers tolerate things such as support for coal because, in return, enough others will tolerate some government help for renewables, or some such compromise. Nothing that seems too drastic -- stuff both sides, as the president argued Wednesday, could vote for. Sometimes the resulting government interventions are helpful, such as fuel efficiency standards. Sometimes, in a race to deliver federal money to interest groups in the guise of helping the environment, they are counterproductive, such as the government's support for corn ethanol. The trick for Obama will be to secure support for the former and not the latter.
Obama seemed to hint at how such a compromise might work next year -- support for nuclear power, offshore drilling and natural gas, which could enrich areas of GOP control in Appalachia and elsewhere, in return for Republican approval of robust federal energy efficiency programs and some green technology subsidies. All of that is better than corn ethanol. The president, for example, is right that using recently-discovered domestic natural gas reserves, the burning of which produces about half the carbon emissions as coal, could significantly reduce emissions from electricity generation.
This approach to energy policy is much more costly to the federal government than cap-and-trade would have been, which could derail the effort in a deficit-hawkish House. And the president was clear -- and correct -- about what this would not be: a complete solution to energy independence or climate change. Still, Obama insisted, "When it comes to something like energy...let's not wait. Let's start making progress on those things we do agree on." As long as this process of picking winners and losers doesn't do more harm than good. And that's a planet-sized "if."
| November 3, 2010; 3:41 PM ET
Categories: Stromberg | Tags: Stephen Stromberg
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