President Obama is trying to find the political center of the nation's energy issues.
His speech yesterday, in steering the nation back to the domestic economy, appeals to a broad section of political -- and geographic -- positions. He stood fast by nuclear power, promised swifter access for oil companies and prioritized climate change.
Yet he got little credit from either side.
Environmental groups criticized Obama for supporting nuclear power, backing the oil industry and failing to use his speech to defend U.S. EPA greenhouse gas rules against Republican attacks.
Industry groups and GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, attacked him for limiting opportunities for oil drillers, promoting clean energy mandates and politicizing the nation's energy troubles.
"This speech was more about polluting the future than winning it," Damon Moglen, climate and energy director for Friends of the Earth, said in a statement lampooning Obama for supporting "dirty energy" sources like nuclear, ethanol, natural gas and "clean coal."
Across the ideological divide, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is leading the Republicans' Senate campaign effort for 2012, accused Obama of being in "complete denial" about the harm his plan would inflict by limiting fossil fuels.
"I just think that the president doesn't have a plan, unless the plan is to discourage domestic production and run up the cost of everything from gasoline to manufacturer goods and agriculture products that depend on energy," he told ClimateWire.
Voters might like Obama's appeal
But Obama's centrist tone yesterday and his willingness to talk frankly about the challenges of fluctuating gasoline prices -- "there are no quick fixes," he said -- might be accepted more willingly by voters than by Washington insiders, says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
"Putting forward a positive, forward-looking agenda that is aimed at reaching bipartisan compromise -- that is what most voters want," Ornstein said. "That's certainly what independent voters want."
Obama expanded his campaign promise from 2008 to end U.S. oil imports from the Middle East by pledging yesterday to reduce foreign imports by one-third by 2025. That would be achieved in two ways: expanding domestic production and reducing oil use by making cars more efficient and able to run on electricity and natural gas.
But he noted that oil is a fading resource. Increased production now, he said, is a temporary fix -- and perhaps a political one -- that won't last.
"All of this means one thing: The only way for America's energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil," Obama said in his speech at Georgetown University. "We have to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy with less of the carbon pollution that threatens our climate. And we have to do it quickly."
Obama also wants to transform the electricity sector. He reasserted a key priority announced two months ago in his State of the Union address: establishing a clean energy standard. His goal, by 2035, is to double the amount of electricity derived from renewable and nuclear energy, combined cycle natural gas and coal plants equipped with carbon capture technology.
The electricity standard promises to be a key campaign topic for Obama, who will emphasize its potential to attract investors to a growing market for wind, solar, nuclear and other energy technologies.
"The global clean energy market is expected to grow by $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years," said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "That's jobs, that's economic growth, that's new companies. The election next year is going to be about the economy."
'Mandates and taxes'
On Capitol Hill, Obama's energy plan got elbowed around by moderate Republicans.
"I think a lot of his ideas are old -- part of the old way of thinking that fights the market," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who supports the expansion of cheap natural gas, not expensive nuclear power. "I think that Congress doesn't want to fight the market. It wants to empower the market, which is sending a natural gas signal."
Still, Kirk said he believes Congress could pass legislation that permanently extends tax credits for renewable energies. But Democratic leaders, he said, are preoccupied with grander energy policies, like an electricity standard, while Republican leaders have no incentive to compromise with Obama because they have a good chance of controlling the Senate after 2012.
"I think there's a broad agenda of bipartisan achievement that could be pushed through this institution," Kirk said, also noting free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia. "But I'm not sure that the leaders here are interested with broad agendas."
Another moderate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), applauded Obama for pushing electric cars, expanded energy research and nuclear energy. Analysts have said those types of bipartisan agreements could spawn support for a clean energy standard.
But Alexander doubts it.
"I believe in research and incentives," he said. "He believes in mandates and taxes."
"What we ought to do is step up our spending on research, which the president would probably agree with, so we have cheaper solar power -- cut its cost in half -- so we can recycle nuclear fuel, so we can burn coal without carbon," Alexander added. "That's how we can have a low-cost energy plan."
Reporter Dina Fine Maron contributed.