Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Yes, he can -- if he wants to. The Obama opportunity

Like many people, I was a little bit emotional in the early hours of this morning. It wasn’t just that Barack Obama had made history, and proved what can be done in American politics. Or the sight of scores of African Americans, thrilled and excited at their new sense of opportunity. Or that the world’s eight-year long nightmare, the presidency of George W. Bush, is about to end.

There are two reasons I am especially pleased.

First, we may now see American leadership – and the promise of real progress - on addressing the climate crisis.

President-elect Obama is committed to bringing America – the single biggest source of carbon emissions – back into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This follows years of denial and intransigence from the Bush Administration. A post-2012 global agreement is now a possibility, at least.

Obama has also said that launching an “Apollo project”, to invest £150 billion over 10 years, to build a new alternative-energy economy, will be his “Number 1 priority” in office. His main priorities will be accelerating the commercialisation of plug-in hybrids, promoting renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency and investing in low emissions coal plants. He would “invest in America’s highly skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centres”, so that they can pioneer green technologies. [For further details click here.] Obama wants this “new energy” to replace cheap credit as the turbocharger of the economy. (He opposes building more nuclear power stations and, while Obama did not oppose oil drilling, he talked about its drawbacks.) If these changes come off, they will bring massive changes to energy markets and the politics of energy.

Obama proposes climate-change legislation centred on a “cap and trade” mechanism that sets a ceiling on emissions that declines over time. Businesses and institutions that cannot hit the targets must buy permits from those that achieve bigger cuts than required. Obama’s proposals are tougher than McCain’s would have been: he proposes to cut emissions by 80 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050, (McCain said 60 per cent) and to auction off all pollution permits from the start, forcing polluters to pay for the damage they cause. This will help to facilitate a reliable carbon price – the cornerstone of any policy framework on climate change.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a promise and action, especially when he the Senate must agree to a new climate change treaty, by a two-thirds majority, as well as approving cap and trade any scheme. Obama’s proposals have their flaws. But this is the impressive energy programme ever produced by a leading US politician.

Second, we may see a new kind of politics.

What Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland, the ruthless use of culturally-based wedge politics, has been vanquished. The Republicans tried that toxic brand of campaigning against Barack Obama and they failed, miserably. After the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic turmoil of 2008, Republican tactics were no longer credible. American voters have been more focussed on their wallets, their fuel prices, their jobs, their mortgages - and embraced a political message based on “hope” and “change”.

Barack Obama can truly claim to embody and represent real political change. This is partly about his race, his inclusive rhetoric and his personal narrative. All have been well covered on this blog. It’s about his age too. Obama represents a new generation of leadership – the late baby boomers -- "Generation Jones" – who, as Jonathan Alter says combine residual '60s idealism mixed and the pragmatism and materialism of the '80s. (I am biased here, having been born in 1962) So Obama can credibly promise to “turn the page” from BushClintonBush and from the culture wars of those years.

But there’s more to it than that. Late in the campaign, Michael Gershon, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, rejected suggestions that Obama is either a closet radical or a born-again moderate. He sees the new president as something else altogether.

"From his days at Harvard Law School, Obama has combined progressive political views with instincts of reconciliation. . . Obama does not appear to view himself as a lapsed radical. He sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates. He is the racial healer who understands racial anger. The peace candidate who prefers a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The outsider who surrounds himself with reassuring establishment figures.

“During the presidential debates, Obama reinforced this image as an analyst, not an ideologue -- the University of Chicago professor, not the leftist community organizer. His entire manner douses inflammatory charges of extremism.”

Gerson notes that one of Obama's favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian of conflicted humility. He believes that this might translate into an administration focused on achievable goals, run by seasoned, reasonable professionals reaching out to Republicans in the new Cabinet and avoiding culture war battles when possible.

But it’s here that my two main hopes for Obama may crash into each other. Gerson questions whether avoiding culture wars and a sense of conflicted humility will be enough to make a strong, decisive president, who can stand up to his own party. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, on the other side of politics, has made a similar observation. He asks whether Obama will deploy the skills that have got him into the White House for an even bigger, more demanding purpose: persuading people to support his energy and climate plans.

It’s a good point. There’s a big difference between uniting people and building voter coalitions in support of far-reaching and diffficult changes. “Selling” big changes to people, than mean they must change themselves, is always hard. And appealing to a party’s sense of values is different from leading it into a new brave new world, especially when money is involved. Former advisers to Bill Clinton have spoken of the dominance of real-time distractions, the inability of Congress to deal with more than one big issue at a time, and the basic limits of influence even from the White House.

The public may be ready for “change” and “green jobs” is a great slogan. But Obama’s energy plan isn’t just about green jobs. His cap and trade legislation would push up fuel prices. Who wants to cope with that, in these tough times?

Some of Obama’s energy and climate change measures are technical and detailed. The medium- and long-term benefits will be hard for anyone to explain to people. A host of surveys show that most Americans remain doubtful, disengaged, or confused about the basic science pointing to human-made climate change. They do not get that stabilising concentrations of emissions mean that emissions have be reduced [see here].

That all sounds like a tough sell to US senators and representatives. Bill Clinton has stressed that moving forward on climate policy involves overcoming obstacles in both parties. He sees it as not a Democrat / Republican issue, but a coal-state issue.

Obama is going to need a new narrative, aimed at persuading American voters to support the Apollo project for new energy and “send a message” to Washington.

It may come down to what the new president really wants to do and the extent to which he is willing to move beyond public opinion, and take the public with him. In short, will he take the risk?

But right now, there’s no-one who can tell the new energy story than Barack Obama – if he really wants to, that is.

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