Who’s More Powerful than Obama?

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Probably the biggest news piece this week was Obama’s State of the Union address. David Roberts of grist seemed to hate it. Whereas often like-minded and equally critical Joe Romm of Climate Progress actually seemed to love it.

Dan Harding of CalFinder had mixed reactions, first “feeling passion stir deep within [him] and tingles of inspiration buzz beneath [his] skin,” then thinking that “[Obama’s] speeches have grown more and more centrist.”

Immediately after reading those first two reviews (David and Joe’s), the idea for this article came to my mind. Who’s more powerful than the President of the United States of America?

Why did this come to my mind? Probably because I’ve been reading a lot on 1) how to communicate climate change and climate and clean energy legislation, 2) the way the media ignores the scientific consensus on climate change, and 3) public perception of climate change lately. And because my first thought on who’s more powerful than Obama was “the media.”

The Media

Many people probably turned to David Roberts to help them decide what to think of Obama’s speech. And many of them probably turned to Joe Romm to do the same. And the fact is, these people’s opinions help shape liberals’ (and some conservatives’) views of Obama, climate legislation, and the like. Even more so, the popular (or “status quo“) media that a large portion of the population aligns themselves with translated Obama’s speech for them as well, helping them to decide what to think of it.

This speech was actually watched by people, giving them the opportunity to think for themselves about it, unlike the vast majority of speeches or statements Obama makes that the media basically has full access to shape for the public?

How does this translate into power?

Very simply, the media is largely responsible for shaping what people think of Obama, what people think of major issues (like climate change), and how much pressure is put on members of Congress and Obama to pass different bills or different portions of bills. For example, a climate and clean energy bill, or different portions of that, could get tremendous support from the public if the media portrayed it positively. The media could get the public so much behind such a bill that Congress would have to respond or be kicked out of office.

The media, perhaps, has much more power to shape the contents and success of a climate and clean energy bill (or other major legislation) than Obama himself.

Hu Jintao, President of China

Well, Forbes puts Obama first and Jintao second, but this is clearly a tight race.

Obama acknowledged in his speech that “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.” He says that “America must be that nation.” But you have to admit that we are getting our lunch eaten by China right now.

Obama’s clean energy push is so big that it is being compared to the Manhattan Project, but even so, China is investing far more in clean tech (some estimate that the investment ratio will be 4:1 per GDP in the next five years).

As the Brookings Institute reports, “Asia’s rising ‘clean technology tigers’ – China, Japan, and South Korea – have already passed the United States in the production of virtually all clean energy technologies, and over the next five years, the governments of these nations will out-invest the United States three-to-one in these sectors.” China, the largest of those three countries, will out-invest the US in gross as well as per GDP according to this report.

I think Obama was right on to bring this competition so strongly into his speech, because the truth is, he can’t do it (or make the decisions) on his own. Jintao has a lot more immediate and direct influence on the matter.

One case comparison we can look at in this field is high-speed rail (HSR). I was thrilled to report this week that Obama has awarded $8 billion to HSR projects across the country. We are hoping for a few billion more, at least. Meanwhile, though, China has been investing billions in HSR lately as well and has specific plans to invest $300 billion by 2020. It seems that Obama just doesn’t have that option (right now).

If this race is exactly what Obama calls it, Obama needs more support from corporations, other politicians, and the citizens of the United States to be able to out-compete Jintao.

This race is a tight one and the results should help people, in retrospect, to look back and evaluate who was more powerful.

(By the way, for a few other articles getting into this discussion on other sites, see: Did China block Copenhagen progress to pave way for its own dominance in cleantech?, Is clean tech China’s moon shot?, and China powers the global green tech revolution.)


Well, coming out of left field with this one, this is my final idea of who might be more powerful than Obama. Of course, like “the media” this isn’t a single person. Nonetheless, it is something to consider.

As we all know, climate change rose to the top of national and even global concern when Al Gore made “An Inconvenient Truth” and people saw this movie on the topic. This, without the flash and flare of Hollywood even, was a prime example of how popular forms of media can affect the population and politics.

Millions of people watched Obama’s State of the Union speech, but how many millions more saw Avatar?

The popularity and influence of Hollywood could be a stronger force getting more people behind climate and clean energy legislation than Obama ever could (at least, in the population at large — the people who do elect members of Congress).

A new video on the web has just come out along exactly these lines, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Felicity Huffman, Forest Whitaker, Ed Norton, Justin Long, and others. I am writing about that in my next post, so stay tuned. If “Hollywood” continues on this path, I think it alone could drive the necessary public support for climate and clean energy legislation, but they need to really get behind it, (do more than a youtube video).

Well, it is a string of thoughts here. And I guess the point of it is, we cannot only pin our hopes and disappointments on Obama or even Congress. We have to look at the issue more broadly; tackle tragic media coverage of these issues; engage in our democracy more ourselves to get people in all sectors energized around the fact that if the US doesn’t give Obama and Congress some support and some push, China is going to win the game before we realize we’re playing with them; and hope that some bigshots in Hollywood or other popular arenas help get the common citizen behind strong climate and clean energy legislation.

Related Articles (not linked above):

  1. Clean Tech: #1 in Worldwide Venture Capital Investments
  2. 1st World Ranking of Clean Energy Technology (CET) Sales — CET to Become 3rd Largest Global Sales Sector by 2020
  3. China Forgets “China-Only Wind Turbines” Policy, but Why?

Image Credit 1: tsevis via flickr under a CC license
Image Credit 2: London Summit via flickr under a CC license

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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