On the campaign trail, Obama put energy above health care. However, once in office the two were prioritized like this: "The plan was to throw two things against the wall, and see which one looks more promising," a senior Administration official said.
John McCain (R-AZ) was involved very early on with his old friend senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), but backed off once primaried by J.D. Hayworth. He comes across as self-centered and jealous of the media attention lavished on Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Graham originally became involved as a non-ideological dealmaker with senator John Kerry (D-MA), looking out for expanded nuclear power and offshore oil drilling, but came under fire for a pseudo-gas tax and political ploys by Harry Reid (N-NV). By mid-April, Senators Kerry and Lieberman were desperate to appease him.
In late March, the KGL senators negotiated a truce with oil companies BP, Conoco, and Shell: the oil companies would honor a six week ceasefire in exchange for expanded offshore oil drilling. But on March 31, President Obama announced its own expansion of offshore oil drilling.
From the outside, it looked as if the Obama Administration were coördinating closely with Democrats in the Senate. Republicans and the oil industry wanted more domestic drilling, and Obama had just given it to them. He seemed to be delivering on the grand bargain that his aides had talked about at the start of the Administration.
But there had been no communication with the senators actually writing the bill, and they felt betrayed. When Graham’s energy staffer learned of the announcement, the night before, he was "apoplectic," according to a colleague. The group had dispensed with the idea of drilling in ANWR, but it was prepared to open up vast portions of the Gulf and the East Coast. Obama had now given away what the senators were planning to trade.
This was the third time that the White House had blundered. In February, the President’s budget proposal included $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees. Graham was also trying to use the promise of more loan guarantees to lure Republicans to the bill, but now the White House had simply handed the money over. Later that month, a group of eight moderate Democrats sent the E.P.A. a letter asking the agency to slow down its plans to regulate carbon, and the agency promised to delay any implementation until 2011. Again, that was a promise Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues.
In the weeks between that March 31 announcement and the BP oil disaster, many DailyKos commenters, including me, battled whether Obama was playing some sort of complex chess game in negotiating on a climate bill. And at the highest levels of power, David Axelrod believed that "being
closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation." In other words, decisions were being made, not as part of a complex negotiation, but just to be done.
During one speech in early June, Obama said that he knew "the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months." He never found them, and he didn’t appear to be looking very hard.
Ultimately, the climate bill failed. Just before it did so, Kerry and Lieberman offered every sort of deal possible to electric utilities. In the opinion of Al Gore, it failed because special interests have an extremely unhealthy level of influence, "And it’s to the point where it’s virtually impossible for participants in the current political system to enact any significant change without first seeking and gaining permission from the largest commercial interests who are most affected by the proposed change." The New Yorker article ends:
a longtime environmental lobbyist told me that he believed the "real tragedy" surrounding the issue was that Obama understood it profoundly. "I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care," the lobbyist said. "Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change."
The comparison originally struck me as harsh. Buchanan is generally ranked as one of the worst Presidents because he couldn't keep the Union together. However, a biographer explains: "Buchanan assumed leadership...when an unprecedented wave of angry passion was sweeping over the nation. That he held the hostile sections in check during these revolutionary times was in itself a remarkable achievement. His weaknesses in the stormy years of his presidency were magnified by enraged partisans of the North and South. His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents, were quickly overshadowed by the cataclysmic events of civil war and by the towering Abraham Lincoln."
I hope there's a better analogy than James Buchanan.
Obama appears to be gearing up for another climate bill fight in 2011, possibly in chunks. If past history is any guide, he'll extol the benefits of clean energy in public while letting the timid, dysfunctional Senate muck it up. This election matters, if for no other reason than that we have to keep as many climate zombies as possible out of Congress. Meanwhile, Arctic summer sea ice is in a death spiral from which it will not recover.