President Obama, like George H. W. Bush, has a problem with the ‘vision thing.’ And that is the reason for which he is being dogged by critics and ‘scandals.’ He presides over a huge bureaucracy and things will go wrong in it, for which he will be blamed if he allows others to control the narrative. Moreover, it is always possible to depict perfectly ordinary decisions by bureaucrats as somehow outrageous.
Thus, there was no cover-up in Benghazi, but all governments would want to be careful about how talking points were shaped in the aftermath of a crisis (if anything the one most responsible for the insistence that crowd reaction against an Islamophobic film was part of the Benghazi story was Republican David Petraeus, then head of the CIA).
The IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax exempt charitable status derived from a legitimate concern at the more than doubling of such requests after the Citizens United ruling, and a suspicion that the groups were backed by Republican billionaires intending to use them for politics, not charity. It may be that the scrutiny was sometimes invidious, but it is not obvious on the surface as to whether the bureaucrats actually did anything out of the ordinary (left wing requests for tax exempt status were flat; if they had suddenly doubled presumably they would have attracted attention, too.)
But these minor bureaucratic issues only crowd in to dominate the headlines because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Obama should be making the headlines, should be setting a coherent national agenda. He offered to drive the USA Bus for another four years. But where is he taking us? Not clear.
The president needs a national project, like John F. Kennedy’s moon landing. It needs to be something that doesn’t depend primarily on Congressional legislation or funding. The Tea Party will give him bupkes. It needs to be something that the Executive Branch can push successfully.
Obama seems to me in some ways never to have overcome his background as a community organizer and then a senator, never to have gotten beyond thinking of himself as a facilitator and consensus-builder. The great tragedy of Barack Obama is that he does not rule in times of consensus but of intense polarization.
There is no obvious external enemy posing a credible threat to the security of the United States. It is better not to have such an enemy, but when there was one, as in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it fostered more national willingness to compromise. There are always deep fissures in American society, but sometimes it is easier to deal with them than others. It is not clear to me that the Civil Rights movement could have succeeded if WASP elites had not been afraid of pushing African-Americans into the arms of the Communists. Certainly, the US accepted decolonization in Algeria and elsewhere out of fear that if the old European empires did not let go, you would have dozens of Vietnams.
Of course, it would be even better if the world as a whole faced a threat that would foster international cooperation as well as more willingness to compromise at home. Ronald Reagan, whom Obama admires, sometimes whimsically wished for an alien invasion from outer space, to bring unity between the capitalist and communist worlds by creating a common threat.
Oh, wait, the world does confront such a menace. Some 97% of refereed papers on climate in the past 20 years accept that human beings are contributing to climate change. Since the study covers 1991 to 2011, likely the consensus would be even more overwhelming if it were just 2000 to 2011, by which time the science had clarified some anomalies. In 2011, the consensus was at 98% even by the very conservative criteria of the studies. In short, we’re causing global warming and scientists are not in any doubt about it.
Obama has sometimes struck grace notes in his speeches about the climate change threat. But since his style is apparently to try to make everyone happy, he has also gone on about clean coal and the desirability of exporting US natural gas, and he hasn’t taken a stand on hydraulic fracturing. He has behind the scenes thrown money at green energy research, and wants to throw more, but only in ways that don’t risk deeply upsetting Big Oil and Big Gas. He has had the EPA start actually applying the law against dirty coal plants, though because of toxic emissions, not C02 poisoning. It is not clear whether he will follow through on this initiative, which does threaten some dirty coal plants with closure.
Obama could do himself a lot of good by announcing an ambitious national goal on carbon emissions, and then using the EPA, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and other bodies of the Executive branch to press for it. The US is emitting 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That is a crime against humanity, more dangerous than all terrorism, all the atrocities, all the wars, all the epidemics in the world. Obama could simply say that by 2020 our goal is to cut that amount in half, to 2.5 billion metric tons, and to work with China, India and other nations to achieve the same halving in their countries.
Having such a goal would be useful, even if it is unrealistic, because the goal would then tell you what the policy should be in each case. Obviously, the EPA should strictly apply the Clean Air Act so as to close as many coal plants as possible as quickly as possible.
Obviously, building new solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and other clean energy installations to replace the coal plants will be an expense. But a national effort of that sort could well be what we need to recover from the 2008 crash, instead of moping along in the economic doldrums for two decades the way Japan has. It could be for the teens of the 21st century what World War II was to the Great Depression.
Obama couldn’t just announce the goal without getting people on his side. He’d have to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to convince people of the reality of the threat. He needs to campaign on the coast in Alabama and Mississippi and let people know that the Gulf will rise and the weather will become more extreme if we don’t do this. He needs to tell fishermen all around the vast US coast that an acid ocean produced by absorbing CO2 could kill off half of fish species over the next century or two. He needs to warn the Southwest of a dust bowl, and New York of a whole string of storm surges.
The business community is for the most part in no doubt about the dangers of climate change. But the 2000 large US corporations interlock on many levels and everyone is afraid to admit that suddenly, overnight, trillions of dollars in petroleum, gas and coal reserves are worthless. What would that do to the stock market? To businesses like automobiles, construction and others that are intertwined with hydrocarbons? Obama would have to go to them and promise to work for a smooth transition. Getting his GOP enemies to offer corporate welfare to get everyone over the hump and actually turn Exxon Mobil into a green energy company should be child’s play once he insists that the great Hydrocarbon bubble has already burst.
The science is not in doubt. The direness of the consequences is not in doubt. The danger to the Republic is palpable. The solutions are obvious and available. Here is the one area where public policy undoubtedly could do enormous good for people’s lives.
Barack Obama was given an opportunity to be the most powerful man in the world at a time of the most perilous global threat to human life in 200,000 years. He needs to lead on this issue. By taking a strong stance, by campaigning in the hustings, by serving as the Great Educator, he can bring the pain and the pressure to the Hill that will make them cooperative. He can find common ground with threatened groups at home and with other Powers abroad. God knows Europe needs a reason to spend government money and jump start the Mediterranean economies, and this program, pushed via NATO and the EU, could finally put a stake through the heart of austerity. The end result would be rapidly falling energy prices over the next two decades via research support, a boon to European and world economic growth and prosperity. The consensus Obama seeks cannot come about from seeking consensus, but rather from setting forth a powerful, game-changing agenda that will force his enemies to risk public opprobrium or join in his struggle.
Frankly, I do not know if Obama has it in him to be this bold, this confrontational, this innovative. But if he does not take this step, historians will look back on his presidency as eight years of treading water, of fiddling while Rome burned, of a fruitless quest for a chimerical consensus. And his presidency, without a mooring, will suffer the death of a thousand cuts, as screw-ups in the lower bureaucracy are blamed on him and a crescendo built that takes away the Senate in 2014, leaving him with a lonely veto as his only, miserable, tool of government as he declines into lame duck irrelevance.