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Obama’s Long Game on Energy

The president believes his focus on alternatives will pay off. Plus: Mitt’s Etch A Sketch problem and why February was cruel for candidates.


Sun king: Obama preaches solar energy in Nevada.(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The White House is trying to advance the debate over America’s energy future on its own terms, which is to say: Talk about alternative energy instead of gas prices. President Obama’s advisers know that Republicans want to use high pump prices as a weapon against his heavy investment in solar, wind, and other forms of alternative energy.

Obama fiercely believes in the promise of renewable energy and the ability of industries tied to it to create new manufacturing jobs with solid wages. Republicans in Congress want to dramatically cut future government investments in these technologies, and they cite three conspicuous federally subsidized failures to buttress their argument.


The government lost a combined $696 million in subsidies to now-bankrupt companies Solyndra (solar cells), Ener 1 (lithium-ion batteries), and Beacon Power (energy storage). Obama’s stimulus law allocated $90 billion to green-jobs incentives and research. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised that $150 billion in federal investments would yield 5 million new jobs. The White House progress report released last week said that investments to date have created 224,500 jobs.

Despite the bankruptcies and the underwhelming job-creation statistics, the White House believes that most Americans support new energy technologies and see through the GOP’s call to expand domestic exploration.

As part of his weeklong energy tour, Obama stopped in Boulder City, Nev., on Wednesday to highlight the Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility, the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the nation. He then headed to Cushing, Okla., on Thursday to tout a new executive order speeding up the approval process for domestic pipeline construction. Cushing is where construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline begins.


Internal polling data tell Obama’s team that the GOP’s hostility to alternative energy rankles young voters and upper-income moderates. By touring a solar plant, Obama knows he’s shining a light on the Solyndra mess. The trip to Cushing underscores his regulatory moves to slow construction of the Keystone leg that begins in Canada.

In both cases, Obama is embracing the symbols of what Republicans say his energy policy has botched. But in the process, advisers say, he will also end up in a better position to protect his policies during the general-election campaign and expand them if he wins reelection.

Major Garrett



Buckling down, keeping your head, making the effort, grinding it out. That is what big leaguers do—in baseball and in politics.

Mitt Romney is a big leaguer. Americans like candidates with grit and resolution. And our long presidential campaign still serves as a revealing test—an ordeal in which candidates must confront the inevitable setbacks, persevere, and triumph. Romney has done that.

Then came the Etch A Sketch.

One of Romney’s advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked after his candidate’s Illinois win if the campaign will be able to pivot in the fall and woo the middle with the same alacrity it has displayed while wooing the Right. Sure, Fehrnstrom said, it’s only a matter of pushing the reset button. It’s like an Etch A Sketch, he went on to volunteer: You just turn the thing over, shake it up, and draw a new picture.

It was a very “D’oh!” moment. Unfortunately for poor Fehrnstrom, the imagery is irresistible. Everyone knows what an Etch A Sketch is: The gadget was part of every baby boomer’s childhood, and most of them probably bought one for their kids. The toy is the very symbol of impermanence—an awful metaphor for a candidate whose major weakness is the suspicion, held by voters across the political spectrum, that he has no core beliefs, aside from his own ambition.

Conservative hecklers dressed in flip-flop costumes have been turning up at Romney events for years, so he will probably survive this particular gaffe and move on toward the Republican nomination. The intriguing question concerns the November election. Is Romney’s malleability a politically fatal flaw?

It is possible that, after six years of hearing Mitt Romney described by his critics as craven, the electorate has digested the information and is ready to move on, and to judge him on his finer qualities. This he hopes.

John Aloysius Farrell


February saw the GOP presidential candidates draining their coffers as they fought bruising primaries in Michigan, Ohio, and other states.

Romney was the GOP’s fundraising winner, bringing in $11.9 million in the month. But his fundraising tally underscored just how much the drawn-out primary cycle has cost his campaign. Romney spent more than he brought in—$12.3 million—and ended the month with just $7.2 million cash-on-hand. His allied super PAC, Restore Our Future, also spent big to help Romney in must-win contests, pouring $12.2 million into the races and beginning March with $10.5 million in the bank. Both Romney and his super PAC started this month with less in the bank than they spent in February.

At the beginning of the year, Romney and his super PAC reported $44 million in the bank; that’s now dwindled to $17.9 million.

Rick Santorum had his best fundraising month, bringing in more than $9 million. But he also spent most of his haul—$7.8 million—and began March with $2.6 million cash-on-hand. That’s why his campaign decided not to spend big bucks in Illinois, given the high price tag and uphill battle. But even more worrisome is the financial standing of Santorum’s allied Red, White, and Blue super PAC, which reported only a pittance—$365,000—on hand.

Faring worst was Newt Gingrich, whose fundraising dried up in February and whose campaign is running in the red. He ended the month with $1.54 million in the bank and $1.55 million in debts.

Josh Kraushaar 

This article appears in the March 24, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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