West Wing Briefing

Better Energy Images

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; 10:00 AM

The manufacturing facility President Obama plans to visit on Wednesday is about as far from offshore oil rigs as you can get. And that's critical for a president who is in need of some good environmental scenery.

The gleaming solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, in Fremont, Calif., will play host to a presidential visit as part of the ongoing White House effort to showcase successful small businesses every week. But the symbolism of an energy company that has virtually nothing to do with oil is not going to be lost on anyone.

While the government races to stop the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and clean up the dirty, dangerous spill, Obama will be touring an ultra-modern company that aims to reduce the nation's dependence on crude.

Obama needs more of those images. Coming into office, he was viewed with suspicion by the oil industry and seen as a great new hope by environmentalists. His Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on clean air and auto emissions standards as Obama pressed forward with sweeping climate change legislation.

But despite his efforts, last December's Copenhagen conference ended in disappointment for many environmental activists. And then, in March, Obama agreed to new offshore oil drilling, part of a plan to accelerate the stalled climate change legislation.

He might have received a pass for that decision if not for the BP oil rig disaster, which is poised to become one of the country's greatest environmental catastrophes. Now, with questions about the government's oversight before the spill and its response after, Obama's environmental record during his first term might be defined more by the aftermath of the oil spill than anything else he does.

White House officials are betting that people will look favorably on the president's drive to invest in alternative sources of energy even more in the wake of the spill. (Remember White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's famous dictum: Never let a good crisis go to waste.)

The Solyndra facility designs and manufactures photovoltaic systems that businesses can install on their rooftops, essentially turning the wasted space on top of a building into the energy source of the future. They make the panels in a state-of-the-art, 300,000-square-foot manufacturing complex.

The pictures that come out of Wednesday morning's visit are likely to be much better for Obama than the video being played endlessly of the oil gushing out of the hole at the bottom of the sea.

Expect those oil spill images, however, to be the subject of questions for press secretary Robert Gibbs at his daily briefing Monday. The White House announced late Sunday that Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, will be on hand to help Gibbs field the toughest questions on the disaster.

Bucks for Barbara

Speaking of California, the president's trip to Fremont will come after an evening fundraiser for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco.

According to The Fix here at the Post, Boxer is unexpectedly running about even with either former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina or former representative Tom Campbell, who are battling with each other and with Chuck, a tea party-backed conservative, for the Republican nomination to challenge Boxer in the fall.

But the GOP infighting gives Boxer an opportunity to build a war chest against whoever wins the Republican primary next month. Obama is trying to help, by showing up for an evening of big-money fundraising.

Obama's headliner event will also benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Not on the schedule

The White House didn't put it on this week's public schedule, but officials are expected to release the government's new national security strategy -- known as the NSS -- by Wednesday, giving Obama another opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and President George W. Bush.

Obama gave a bit of a preview during his commencement address at West Point over the weekend. But senior aides promise much more detail in the many-page document this week.

The biggest change, they say, will be the break from Bush's policy of preemptive war, which was issued in an NSS in 2002 and laid out the justification for going after Saddam Hussein despite his not having launched attacks against the U.S.

But a national security official notes that the Obama strategy will, among other things, spell out in broad strokes the strategy behind the fight against terrorism, which includes the use of predator drones.

The document will also provide a way to understand how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fit into a broader context, officials say.

More foreign leaders

On Monday, Obama will welcome Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon to the White House for Hariri's first official visit to Washington since taking office. The White House said Obama "looks forward to consulting with Prime Minister Hariri on a broad range of mutual goals in support of Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and regional peace and security."

On Tuesday, before leaving for the Boxer fundraiser, the president will meet with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. A White House official said the president "appreciates Italy's robust contributions to peace efforts around the world and looks forward to continuing his consultations with President Napolitano, following up on their July 8 meeting last year in Rome."

Week's end

By Thursday, the president will be back at the White House for one of his favorite things: welcoming a winning sports team to his house. This time, it will be the NCAA men's basketball champions the Duke Blue Devils.

Later that day, Obama will host the first-ever White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

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