Obama’s Playing the Long Game on Climate

And in every realm, from politics to policy to his personal legacy, time is on his side.

President Obama running in 2008.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
June 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced Monday that he’d use his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to cut emis­sions from ex­ist­ing coal-fired power plants, Re­pub­lic­ans rubbed their hands to­geth­er and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell dubbed it a “dag­ger in the heart of the middle class.”

In the short term, what Obama’s do­ing makes little sense. It could hurt his party polit­ic­ally (though that’s not, as I noted the oth­er day, ne­ces­sar­ily the case). It will drive up en­ergy costs. It will kill jobs for blue-col­lar Amer­ic­ans. And in coal coun­try, it will make people hate him like their live­li­hoods de­pend on it.

In the long term, it’s the right thing to do for the plan­et. Now, lib­er­ated by reelec­tion and with an eye on his leg­acy, Obama’s will­ing to ab­sorb that polit­ic­al heat to ac­com­plish some long-term goals.

That rolling this out ahead of the 2014 elec­tions could hurt vul­ner­able Demo­crats is prac­tic­ally a giv­en. But, as The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Greg Sar­gent ob­served, Demo­crats see it as part of a much longer battle that will ex­tend in­to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race and bey­ond, paint­ing the GOP as the “anti-sci­ence party” among young voters, an in­creasinly im­port­ant vot­ing block in na­tion­al elec­tions. In­deed, as the “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant” grows, and as the power of coal coun­try shrinks, the polit­ics will in­creas­ingly be on Obama’s side.

Yet the lar­ger point is that Obama is not fol­low­ing the polit­ic­al cal­en­dar at all. He’s fol­low­ing the reg­u­lat­ory cal­en­dar. Rolling out the pro­pos­al now is not a polit­ic­al de­cision, but a bur­eau­crat­ic one, since the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency needs time for a pub­lic com­ment peri­od.

The new rules, de­signed to cut car­bon emis­sions as much as 30 per­cent by 2030, con­sti­tute the strongest ac­tion ever taken by an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent to tackle cli­mate change and will have a much great­er im­pact on the en­vir­on­ment than the much-hyped Key­stone pipeline.

The move won’t have no­tice­able im­pacts on the cli­mate for some time — the rules won’t even be fi­nal­ized un­til June of 2015 — but it could well be cru­cial to a broad­er glob­al plan.

None of this sounds par­tic­u­larly en­ti­cing to any­one ask­ing, “How will this af­fect me now?” But the White House hasn’t giv­en up on craft­ing a PR pitch to those voters either. In his weekly ad­dress, Obama said the reg­u­la­tions would pre­vent up to 100,000 asthma at­tacks and 2,100 heart at­tacks in the first year alone; the EPA has driv­en home sim­il­ar points. The pub­lic-health mes­saging is a bit mis­lead­ing since the be­ne­fits aren’t dir­ectly tied to cut­ting car­bon, but rather to cut­ting the pol­lut­ants that hitch a ride with car­bon on the way out of coal plant smokestacks. But an­cil­lary be­ne­fits (or co-be­ne­fits as they’re some­times called) are still be­ne­fits. And the White House is right to hype them.

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Taken to­geth­er, the new cli­mate reg­u­la­tions are the sort of ac­com­plish­ment that could, along with the Af­ford­able Care Act, come to define Obama’s leg­acy. And over at New York magazine, Jonath­an Chait has been mak­ing the case for some time.

The pres­id­ent him­self has been more subtle about it. Back in Janu­ary, Obama spoke little about cli­mate change in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress, though reg­u­la­tions on coal-fired power plants would fea­ture prom­in­ently in his second term.

And when he does talk about it, he doesn’t dis­cuss polit­ic­al ex­pedi­ency, or ex­pedi­ency of any sort. After all, a pre-SOTU poll showed the Amer­ic­an pub­lic was per­fectly happy to have Obama not do a thing about the en­vir­on­ment in 2014. Spe­cific­ally, the NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll found that only 27 per­cent of re­spond­ents said ad­dress­ing cli­mate change should be an “ab­so­lute pri­or­ity” for 2014, while 41 per­cent said ac­tion can be put off un­til next year (for con­trast, 91 per­cent said cre­at­ing jobs should be an “ab­so­lute pri­or­ity” for the year).

In­stead Obama’s op­ted to frame cli­mate as an is­sue of con­science. “When our chil­dren’s chil­dren look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of en­ergy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” Obama said in the brief sec­tion of his 2014 State of the Uni­on ad­dress ded­ic­ated to cli­mate. It’s a line that dis­tills how the op­tim­ist­ic chants of his 2008 cam­paign have turned to thoughts of the leg­acy he’ll leave be­hind.

He’s made his bid to be­come the en­vir­on­ment­al pres­id­ent. And there are many act­ors who could still thwart him (in some sense, he’s already been thwarted in the fail­ure of the Wax­man-Mar­key en­ergy bill of 2009). But in find­ing a way around Con­gress and its flawed pro­cess, he’s made a play at re­writ­ing the polit­ic­al his­tory of cli­mate change, a text­book ex­ample of a place where Demo­cracy fails.

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