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Obama: Good? Bad? Stupid? Smart?


Obama delivering the 2012 State of the Union. White House Photo, Pete Souza.

We like to stick people in boxes. Well, categorizing where people stand and what we think of their stance is a part of human nature. It is something that helps us to act or not act, spend time with someone or not, trust someone or not. I think that we do this more than normal with presidents. We want to say that our president is either good or bad, want to have a stance, so that we can try to get him or her re-elected or taken out of office. So, we are eager to stick him or her into a box.

But, really, politics is complicated, and people are complicated, and sometimes we have to step beyond categorizations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (well, hopefully we do so more often than just sometimes).

Unfortunately, watching the 2012 State of the Union address last night was a little impractical for me, considering it was 3:00am here. But I watched it first-thing this morning. I then went on to read a number of editorials on the address. To be honest, I was quite surprised at the lack of depth and sophistication in much of this commentary. It all revolved around some surface issues or a superficial take on the messages of the speech.

I think, looking at the speech, you need to look at it from two different perspectives:

1) you need to pay attention to the fact that this is probably the best chance Obama has to have millions of members of the general public hear what he’s got to say, unedited;

2) you have to take a look at the actual policy implications of his statements.

So, looking at it from those perspectives, here’s my take on Obama’s 2012 SOTU address, and perhaps a bit on him as well:

Speaking to the Public

This is an election year, and this speech was an election-year speech. With that in mind, overall, I think Obama nailed the speech in this “speaking to the public” category (with one exception… below).

While some of the key things Obama focused on were not of my liking, he really took the opportunity in this speech to touch the hearts of ‘the other side’ and swing voters. Anyone who watched this and still thinks Obama is anti-oil (which I wish he actually were) has to reconsider. The following quote certainly didn’t make his own base happy, but it must have created quite some confusion or cognitive dissonance in the heads of oil and natural gas industry lovers, and perhaps brought some over to his side: “Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right – eight years.” Does this make me happy? No. Is it something that will score him political points? I lean towards saying ‘yes’. Similarly, anyone who saw him as anti-cars has to reconsider after watching the portion of the speech on the American auto-industry.

Oil & gas within reason is a phrase that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to greens. But it is an approach that helps to explain regulatory oil and gas policies. And this is what he drilled next. “…I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” If we’re going to have natural gas drilling (which Obama is for), it seems he is intent on making sure it, at least, doesn’t harm our water supplies (beyond the harm it does through global warming).

Some perspective on the subsidies fossil fuel industries have received and the clean energy subsidies that are needed now is important in this country today, after FOX News and friends completely misrepresented the Solyndra story for months (and continues to do so).

Quotes on this:

“And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

“What’s true for natural gas is true for clean energy. In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.”

True & true. (Then throws in nice case study.)

“Our experience with shale gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not walk away from workers like Bryan. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.”

Great passion in this section.

“We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives. The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will. I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history – with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.”

Pushing Congress to do some minimal work on clean energy, and also growing clean energy without a broken Congress (i.e. hostile opposition).

“Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s another proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”

Common sense. Frugality. Love it.

He spoke like a TV personality, not a college professor. While I prefer the style of a college professor, Obama’s much more impassioned (than normal) tone and energy in this speech may have put him on more likeable terms with the majority of the public, folks who are more affected by emotion than intellect. And I have to say, his passion was actually quite inspiring in parts (like the fossil fuels subsidy portion above).

He nailed the bonus-happy bankers who robbed the country, and the one-percenters who rob the U.S. with unethical tax breaks. (I think this was a pretty important and gutsy move and will touch anyone at all affected by the Occupy Wall Street movement,… and further pushes this cause, of course.)

He pointed out the obvious (but, to some, not so obvious) need for regulations in several points — when talking about how the financial industry screwed the U.S., and how he won’t let another Gulf oil spill like the BP spill occur again. He also pointed out how he is working to cut pointless regulation, and made an important distinction between the two (pointless and purposeful regulations) that I think a lot of people don’t get.

He nailed Republican obstructionism in Congress. On one hand, this puts pressure on Congress to work together a little better. Additionally, with an insanely unpopular Congress, it further separates him from that branch of government in voters’ eyes. Especially given the fact that the current Congress is a bit dominated by Republicans, this is all likely to give Obama a bump in the coming presidential election.

Brave speak regarding our position globally, versus other countries’. Obama certainly wasn’t making friends with other leading countries or ideological enemies in this speech. With so much attention put on ridiculous claims of him not being born in the U.S. and being anti-America, this kind of talk (again, some of which was not exactly something that I would condone) certainly hits the hearts of many of his non-traditional base.

On that traditional base of his, Obama obviously added many points and challenges we’d support. For the shortcomings we don’t support, I think he knows pretty darn well that his potential opponents in the GOP this year are so far off their rocker that he’s not going to lose many votes to them, or even to apathy, if he isn’t 100% tied to fighting for our wishes. Do I appreciate that? No. Do I think Obama fully ‘gets’ the most important issues of our day? No. But do I think this was all a smart political move? Yes, I do. (Again, the actual policy discussion, a short one, is below. More by Silvio in our next post.)

Obama is friends with American jobs and education, and you had to wear some pretty thick ear plugs to avoid hearing that.

Global warming…. Yes, this is the elephant in the room that everyone is blocking out, including Obama. It is the exception mentioned above. I don’t think his brief mutter of climate change is even worth discussing. The U.S. public is behind global warming action, and is increasingly realizing the threat it poses and the problems it’s already causing. But that awareness and support would really grow a ton if our president would make it a prime issue, and if he would force those of us unwilling to look at its threats to finally do so. Obama dropped the ball. And I think that was a grave mistake, politically and otherwise. With more awareness of global warming’s threats and costs, as well as the urgency of action, the policy moves Obama wants to make would get a lot more support. He missed the opportunity to point out the scientific consensus on this issue, or point out how the fossil fuel industry blocks greater awareness and progress.

Why did Obama drop the ball on this topic again? My thoughts are that 1) he thinks it’s too politically divisive (I don’t think it is and also think that leaving it off the table just makes it a political issue for longer); 2) he knows he isn’t meeting his initial goals or claims of change that he promised at the beginning of his presidency (hard to talk about a topic you’ve dropped); and/or 3) he really doesn’t get the urgency of this issue (perhaps the most concerning possibility).

He’s still on the ‘working together’ pitch. Well, not much can be done without working together. And I think he’s good to put the GOP in the hot seat on this one. Not a bad move in my opinion, politically.

Overall, political win. Big misstep: global warming’s invisibility.

Policy Implications

Well, the bottom line is, there are some pretty contradictory policy goals here (from a climate or environment perspective), and Obama’s tenure in office has been a bit mixed as well. We can’t know what rhetoric will actually be turned into policy in most cases, but Obama’s rhetoric last night certainly seemed to match up with his policy decisions up to now. Like it or not, looks like we’ve got more of the same in the coming year or 5. And what exactly would that be?

Clean energy & energy efficiency: Obama’s team has done more for clean energy and energy efficiency than probably any presidential team in U.S. history. That’s a strong suit that he continues to focus on. If it were up to him alone, I think it’s safe to say that we’d be the world’s clean energy leader (we’re far from it today).

Regulation: Obama’s team has been bringing back common-sense regulation the Bush administration dropped (in the energy industry and elsewhere). And it looks like it will continue doing so. But not always.

Fossil fuels: Obama’s happy, once again, to show how much he supports the oil and gas industry. And he really does. He’s done plenty for them, despite killing the Keystone XL for obvious, necessary reasons. Obama touts what was originally a Republican mantra of “all of the above” — and he supports it policy-wise. But “all of the above” equals less clean energy, less clean air, less clean water, and…

Global warming: Obviously, unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and a livable climate don’t go together. And Obama definitely seems to favor the former. That’s where it becomes mighty hard to consider Obama ‘smart’. He has dropped the ball on “stopping the seas from rising,” a big task he said would start doing from Day 1 in office. And, in the end, this may be the most defining matter of Obama’s presidency in history books written a few decades from now…

More SOTU pieces you might want to check out:

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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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