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POLITICO Pro: Obama signals to greens for 2012
May 3, 2011

Posted by Matt Dempsey Matt_Dempsey@epw.senate.gov

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POLITICO Pro

Obama signals to greens for 2012

By Darren Samuelsohn 

5/3/11 3:26 PM EDT

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President Barack Obama is offering his beleaguered green base some titillating morsels for what he hopes to deliver on energy policy if he wins a second term.

Don't get Obama wrong; these are not campaign promises - yet.

But over the past month, the president has made it clear in West Wing meetings and fundraisers that he wants to rally environmentally minded voters who, thanks in large part to last year's big global warming legislative failure, still feel like his second pick for the prom.

"We've had some setbacks, and some things haven't happened as fast as people wanted them to happen," Obama said at a recent New York fundraiser. "I know. I know the conversations you guys have. ‘Oh, you didn't get the public option - and, gosh, I wish that energy bill had passed.' I understand the frustrations. I feel them too."

Obama's team knows about the consequences of an environmental exodus. In the 2000 presidential election, Democrats blamed some greens with helping George W. Bush narrowly win the White House by supporting Ralph Nader over Al Gore.

Last week in Chicago, Obama 2012 campaign adviser David Axelrod and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel tried to do their part to buck up the green base during private meetings with about 80 major environmental philanthropists.

Attendees told POLITICO that the former White House officials heard a number of complaints about last year's climate bill loss but responded by pointing to the president's commitment to their issues via EPA climate rules and tens of billions in spending on renewable energy through the 2009 stimulus package.

"We had a back and forth about getting to first base versus swinging for the fences," said Betsy Taylor, co-founder and board president of 1Sky, one of the environmental groups pushing for federal policies to curb greenhouse gases.

With his day job, Obama must be careful not to give the appearance he's resting on his laurels until a second term.

The president pounced last week on House Speaker John Boehner's ABC News interview expressing an openness to end some of the oil industry's biggest tax breaks. And his Cabinet fanned out around the country to unveil a long-awaited policy defining what waters are subject to federal pollution rules - answering pleas by greens to clarify conflicting Supreme Court opinions.

But Obama's team probably is going to have to wait on many other top green priorities.

Regulations for coal ash, a potentially toxic leftover from coal-fired power plants, probably will be pushed back until after the election.

EPA's most anticipated new climate regulations for power plants and other major industrial sources are due in final form next spring. But with congressional Republicans making the rules a centerpiece of their legislative attack strategy, sources within and outside the administration expect that EPA's efforts will ultimately get punted beyond November 2012.

Earlier this month, Obama dropped in unannounced on a group of youth activists meeting with senior aides in the White House. During a nearly 30-minute exchange, the president cited the challenges of moving comprehensive energy legislation in Congress, given hurdles from the Republican-led House.

"The implication there was it would be pretty hard to do anything massive in the next 18 months," said Courtney Hight, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition and a former White House Council on Environmental Quality staffer.

Veterans of Obama's first-term cap-and-trade battle have packed up their most ambitious requests until after the presidential campaign, relegating themselves to the back seat as the White House and Congress try to address the debt limit and budget issues.

"I don't think anybody expects anything different than those two topics will take up all the energy for the remainder of this term," said Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

But Roy said he would look to Obama for a second go at energy issues come 2013.

"If we start seeing the unemployment situation turned around, if we get ourselves on a path to deal with the debt, then I think in a second term, I'd expect him to come back to his policy priorities, including clean energy," Roy said.

To even win a second term, Obama must navigate some tough terrain on energy issues, with his moves being scrutinized from all parts of the political spectrum.

With Americans paying more than $4 a gallon for gasoline in many places, GOP presidential rivals like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have hit the major television networks and conservative radio stations to decry Obama's energy policies. Picking at Obama's scabs, Republican operatives are also making light his mixed two-plus-year record on environmental issues.

"Why make any more promises when you didn't deliver the first time around?" said Mark McIntosh, counsel at Boyden Gray & Associates and a former White House official in the George W. Bush administration.

Obama's left flank remains a concern too.

Greens who fought Bush on global warming policy and science for eight years have in recent months been agonizing over whether Obama would really follow through with a veto threat on any piece of legislation that strips EPA of its climate change powers, from stand-alone measures to riders in the catch-all budget.

During the Power Shift youth conference on energy issues last month in Washington, organizers dubbed one of their sessions "What to Do When the President's Just Not That Into You."

"I just want to see him draw a line in the sand," said Hight, who helped organize the White House meeting that included deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, top energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal, Council on Environmental Quality Associate Director Amy Salzman, Office of Public Engagement Director Jon Carson and his associate director, Kal Penn.

"I think we shook them a little bit," Hight said. "It was the first time they were thinking young people aren't a sure thing."

During the meeting, Obama didn't make any promises on energy or environmental legislation. But Hight said he urged the activists to "keep pushing me," adding, "It's your job to push the envelope. It's my job to govern."

Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said Obama's campaign rhetoric on energy could serve a purpose as Republicans attack him on the issue.

"If the president wins a comfortable reelection, one could argue he's won the debate and therefore creates the space for enough Republicans to say ‘we've got to address this, that a deal is conceivable,'" Weiss said, citing Bill Clinton's 1997 budget deal with House Speaker Newt Gingrich after trouncing Bob Dole in the 1996 election.

Weiss said it's "very possible" that Obama in a second term could make progress on a clean energy standard and measures to reduce oil consumption.

And while he acknowledged it's something of a long shot, Weiss said the idea of legislation forcing "direct reductions on global warming pollution" would even be on the table if it appeased coal-state Democrats with financial aid for carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Obama also would need some Republicans to return to a space on climate issues that the party reluctantly occupied when John McCain became its 2008 presidential nominee with a campaign platform that included cap-and-trade legislation.

"It changed one direction over the past few years," Weiss said. "Perhaps it can change back."

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