How President Obama Made His Energy Platform 'Pop'

By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 31, 2009

After a long day of campaigning on July 8, candidate Barack Obama arrived at his Chicago headquarters for a three-hour brainstorming session about a suddenly hot issue: energy and climate change.

He had summoned a cross section of experts, including top executives from three utilities and two oil companies, the chief energy economist of an investment bank, a climate scientist, a California energy and environment expert, an oil consultant-historian, and several campaign staffers. Despite the late hour, one participant recalled, "He walked in as if he had just gotten up after a refreshing night's sleep to lead a class. He was clearly there to harvest information and then do something with it."

While Obama had held a similar session early in his Senate career, the Chicago meeting marked a turning point in his thinking. He knew there was a moral case for addressing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, but this time, he realized he could make a political and economic case for it. And top advisers say internal polling showed that with gasoline prices at more than $4 a gallon, the American public was open to an energy platform based on economic competitiveness and national security.

Obama went around the room asking the experts about oil prices (then days away from their all-time peak), oil drilling on public lands on and offshore, energy efficiency, and ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. As he listened to the group, his advisers said, he began to grasp how he could sell a low-carbon future to the American public.

"This stuff needs to pop more," he told his aides as he left the room. "We need to find a way to make it pop more."

Now, four months into his presidency, Obama has elevated energy and climate issues to near the top of his agenda; he's made them pop by packaging them as ways to create "green" jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on imports of foreign oil. Favoring pragmatism over moral suasion, the president is attempting to make a sharp shift in national policy on an issue that many voters have yet to embrace as a priority, advisers and lawmakers say.

His efforts, combined with those of congressional Democrats, have already pushed forward groundbreaking initiatives. February's stimulus act lavished money on projects for renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy research. This month, the White House announced that it had negotiated corporate, state and environmentalist support for higher fuel-efficiency and tailpipe-emissions standards that would clamp the first nationwide limits on greenhouse gases.

Finally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21 approved a bill that would take a cap-and-trade approach to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, inching closer to a domestic legislative compromise that has eluded climate activists for the dozen years since the adoption of the international Kyoto accords.

"Whether or not you think that is a good idea or not depends on your perspective, but no one can deny that the fight going forward and its political implications will reshape how we look at energy issues," said Frank Maisano, an energy industry lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani.

Making climate a key issue was not an obvious decision for Obama. The political benefits are debatable. Energy and climate issues usually register low on lists of voters' concerns; climate legislation is rooted in the idea of limits; Republicans have sought to portray Obama's backing of cap-and-trade legislation as support for a giant new tax; and if legislation is adopted, it will be impossible for decades to point to specific climate trends and claim success.

In the 2004 Senate race, Obama cited his backing of climate-change legislation in seeking support for his Democratic primary bid from the League of Conservation Voters, which ultimately spent $400,000 boosting his candidacy. But energy and climate were not his specialties when he arrived in the Senate after teaching constitutional law, working as a community organizer and serving as a legislator in a state that relies heavily on coal.

But even before the late-night session in July, Obama had begun to educate himself about energy and climate and to use those issues to define himself as a politician, say people who have advised him. He read a three-part New Yorker series on climate change, for instance, and mentioned it in three speeches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a former aide said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company