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Obama vs. Reality

Even blue-sky goals fall short.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2009

The buzzword in Washington, D.C., right now is “change.”

Throughout his election campaign, President Barack Obama promised to bring change to Washington. On a range of issues, from greater public accountability to greener energy policy, Obama has set high expectations for his administration. But as the president acknowledged in his inaugural address, fulfilling those expectations won’t be easy.

Invoking the heroism of George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, Obama said, “In this winter of our hardship … let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” Inspiring as such imagery might be, the reality behind Obama’s promises bears questioning. Are Obama’s goals for real? Or are they mostly blue sky, representing his ideals but not necessarily his practical intentions?

For the U.S. power and gas industry, the specific questions are whether Obama really means what he says about energy policy; whether his policy priorities are sufficient to accomplish the goals he’s set; and whether his “Yes we can!” strategy can survive in the real world, with all its practical constraints and party politics, after the “change” buzz subsides.

Dirty Reality

During inauguration week, visitors to Washington, D.C., witnessed a pair of brilliant marketing campaigns.

First was the familiar “Yes we can!” message that propelled Barack Obama to election victory. All over town, on placards, t-shirts and storefronts, these three words—almost meaningless in their simplicity—came to represent a unifying principle of hope and determination. The “Yes we can!” campaign convinced even jaded cynics to extend the benefit of doubt to America’s new president.

Against this backdrop, an advocacy group called the Reality Coalition—comprised of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups—launched a series of clever advertisements promoting the message, “In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.” During inaugural week, Washington’s Metro Center transit station was blanketed from top to bottom, end to end, with the Reality Coalition’s ads. These messages were unavoidable, even among the dense clot of travelers that passed through on inauguration day.

The Reality Coalition’s anti-coal campaign, juxtaposed with Obama’s “Yes we can!” campaign, raises interesting questions about the direction of energy policies in 2009 and beyond.

Energy issues played a prominent role in Obama’s election campaign, and near the beginning of his inaugural address he said, “Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” Obama’s agenda translates this statement into two goals:

• “Eliminate our current imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years”; and

• “Reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.”

Both of these goals portend major policy changes, but the first might be even more radical than the second—that is, if the Obama administration is serious about it.

Every president since 1980 has applied the Carter doctrine—declaring oil shipping routes through the Persian Gulf vital to U.S. national security, and committing military force to protect them. But Obama’s