Updated at 8:36 a.m. on January 25.
The imminent departure of White House senior energy and climate adviser Carol Browner appears to be one of President Obama’s strongest signals to date that he intends to move firmly to the center as he approaches the 2012 elections.
Browner’s departure leaves a major gap in what was once a progressive cornerstone of the president’s policy agenda.
Obama campaigned on the promise of an ambitious and transformational energy plan to cap and trade fossil fuel pollution, mandate production of renewable energy, and pump $150 billion into clean-technology investment over a decade.
His creation of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy to realize that vision won glowing praise from the environmental community and harsh criticism from Republicans.
Browner, who helmed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton, is one of the most experienced energy and environment policy leaders in Washington.
But critics say she failed to effectively push Obama’s energy agenda on Capitol Hill. Although the House in 2009 passed a cap-and-trade bill, a similar effort died last summer in the Senate -- despite the constant outreach from Browner’s office. Even at the height of last year's gushing Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Browner’s office couldn’t push Senate Democrats together to pass a bill reforming offshore drilling rules. With a new Republican majority in the House and increased GOP numbers in the Senate, it has become clear that there is little chance of moving any major climate or clean-energy legislation in the next two years -- a situation that would likely frustrate someone in Browner’s position.
Advocates of climate policy and fossil fuel industry viewed the move as a sign that the White House is a abandoning an aggressive environmental agenda, as Obama seeks to define the second half of his term as more moderate and business-friendly.
"Part of this election was at least a certain segment of the voting public saying, 'Mr. President, we’re not so sure about your friends.' So the night before the State of the Union, when the president is trying to patch it up with some of the American people, the coincidence of saying, 'This is one of the friends that I’m going to jettison' -- I don’t think anyone could define this kind of announcement... as a quiet breakup," said a senior House Democratic aide who was closely involved in the energy and climate negotiations. "This is about creating a second chapter. They could have chosen someone who dealt with health care or financial reform as a sacrificial lamb, but this is what they chose. This is very much like the second chapter of the Clinton presidency."
Instead of moving ambitious energy legislation, Democrats and the White House are on the defensive, hoping to hold the line on Republican attacks against existing EPA climate and clean-air regulations and against efforts to slash the approximately $30 billion in clean-energy spending from the 2009 stimulus law. The fossil-fuel industry said it read Browner’s departure as a sign that the president may be open to compromising on the climate rules, which moderate Democrats on the Hill have sought to delay by up to two years. Last summer, the administration indicated it would veto such an effort.
"Carol Browner was a passionate contributor to a strong White House commitment to environmental policy. Her departure may be part of a legitimate effort to pay careful attention to addressing some of the real regulatory obstacles in the way of job creation in the United States,” said Scott Segal, a lobbyist for Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several oil and coal companies. “In the next year, the administration will evaluate a suite of regulatory proposals aimed at the power and refining sectors that may undermine reliability and affordability of power, and place millions of energy, refining, and manufacturing jobs at competitive disadvantage. Infusing the White House with some new and fresh viewpoints makes sense."
The administration did not clarify whether the position would be filled, or if Browner’s departure would signal the end of the senior climate position.
“Carol is confident that the mission of her office will remain critical to the president, and she is pleased with what will be in the State of the Union [tonight] and in the budget on clean energy,” said the official.
“She is proud of the administration’s accomplishments -- from the historic investments in clean energy included in the Recovery Act to the national policy on vehicle efficiency that will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and lower consumers’ prices at the pump... the president’s commitment to these issues will of course continue but any transition of the office will be announced soon.”
Meanwhile, the shift in the energy debate from pushing legislation to defending regulations had already shifted the energy and environment spotlight within the administration from Browner to the woman who holds her former job, EPA chief Lisa Jackson. Jackson, who is also a regular visitor on Capitol Hill, has won praise for her ability to communicate effectively with lawmakers and promote and protect the administration’s climate agenda -- even among Republicans who disagree with her.
Some advocates of climate legislation on the Hill say Browner had long been unhappy because despite the creation of a special climate office, Obama never committed to moving the energy and climate agenda as he did to passing health care and financial reform legislation.
“Carol Browner has had her own point of view which I think many of us understand. She is an effective spokesperson, but I’m not certain she has had an opportunity to make much headway,” said Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate who has supported some clean-energy legislation and was a target of Browner’s when she sought to win votes for Obama’s climate agenda.
Then-Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who was instrumental in negotiating the coal industry’s stake in the House climate bill, sang Browner’s praises late last year when rumors first started surfacing that she would leave her position.
“Carol was aware of every step of those negotiations,” Boucher told National Journal. “She encouraged them. The administration did not take a position on any of those issues and essentially left it to [then-House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman] Henry Waxman and me to work out those details.”
Amy Harder contributed contributed to this article.