President Obama's decision last week to halt the Canadian tar-sands pipeline project was the right choice for the environment, a win for environmentalists—who had staged incredible acts of civil disobedience protesting the project—and a talking point of attack for GOP candidates through the debates and South Carolina speeches that followed.
Those on the left cheered that this destructive plan—which had been cautioned as "game-over for the planet"—wouldn't be realized. However, the Keystone Pipeline was just one very extreme front in this fight, and as environmentalists realized just a few days later, it's not a fight that they are winning. In his State of the Union, the president showed his support for more domestic energy exploration—which many understand to include controversial fracking techniques and ever-deeper and riskier oil drilling. We may have stopped one pipeline, but we haven't changed a system that demands us to pipe more oil and natural gas further distances to power our everyday lives.
Meanwhile, the GOP hyperventilated at the president's actions, claiming that the pipeline could reduce our dependence on Middle East oil and create jobs. After his Address, they didn't applaud for his dangerous commitment to the fictions of clean, safe coal, oil and gas—rather they continue to pound on his Administration's support of the ill-fated solar company Solyndra as an example that the government should stay out of the energy game.
And while Obama may be able to claim that being attacked from both sides means he's doing something right, that axiom may be true in terms of political positioning but doesn't count as good governance. Maybe many Americans will feel that he has found a sensible center, but we're likely to see an entire term of President Obama without a significant, ambitious vision for America's energy policy.
Ever since the GOP killed any hope of cap-and-trade—what had been the conservative alternative to a carbon tax before the Republicans dove deep into rightward obstructionism—the Senate and House have been scared to put muscle behind bold ideas on energy. This is an issue that connects the economy, international security and the environment—it's one where thinking big and governing big could make a real difference—yet it seems as politically toxic and stagnant as a superfund site.
In Congress, our representatives feel boxed in by political realities. Among the environmental movement, the defensive posture against a string of terrible ideas puts lefties in the position of chanting, "No, no, no" with less room—or less coverage—for the ideas for which they chant "Yes, yes, yes." With the Tea Party saying no to any reforms, you have two Parties of No, two sides telling us what can't come next, but no megaphone for the champions and visionaries who can show us what must come next.
That's not to say there are no good ideas. Green jobs, green infrastructure, urban retrofitting are all finding their policy niches. Wind and solar are advancing, though everyone acknowledges they are further off than we can bank on for our ever-growing needs. Big energy companies are getting into the game of alternative sources—a sure sign that down the road, those new fields will be big bets.
But that just leaves us with bad choices in the short term. You have governors—including the members of the Democratic Governors Association who will be greeted in midtown today by anti-fracking activists—being told to choose between fracking and nuclear, or between neither and coal-power plants, or none of the above and higher utility bills and rolling brown-outs. That's not a great position to govern from.
In a case like this, a president might be the only voice loud enough to change the debate, something defensive activists, trapped Representatives and bomb-hurling rivals can't do on their own. Even this president, who is great at the Big Speech at Hail Mary moments, hasn't found his opportunity. He may have squandered the chance to call for bold reforms following the BP spill devastation. But as the public's attention dissipated, so did our resolve. Ironically, of all the presidents who for 40 years have called for us to break our addiction on oil, it was the Texas speculator-in-chief, George W. Bush, could have galvanized that reform if after 9/11 he made a war-time level investment in new energies of the future.
But Bush let his opportunity stall in the deserts of Iraq, and Obama is passing up his opportunity to thing, speak and lead big.
If he remains boxed in, he'll have nowhere to go. The GOP will say he has nowhere to go but down in a "drill, baby, drill" mentality. But with an energy policy this stagnant, anything is an improvement, and if he can articulate a policy that frees us from international entanglements, create jobs and truly speaks to "winning the future," he really has nowhere to go but up.