With the bruising health care debate over, President Obama's top economic adviser left little doubt last week that energy and climate has taken its place atop the administration's agenda.
During a 30-minute speech at a Washington energy conference, Larry Summers, the head of the White House's National Economic Council, used lofty rhetoric to warn of the long-term consequences if Congress fails to follow through this year on a sweeping overhaul of how the nation generates and uses energy.
"Read the history of great nations," Summers said. "Read how they succeed and read how they fail. Their ability to mobilize to solve problems before they are absolutely imminent crises is what determines their longevity. That's why this task of economic renewal is so important broadly. And that's why I believe it is so important that we move for economic reasons to pass comprehensive energy legislation."
Summers, a former Treasury secretary and president of Harvard University, went on to outline ways a climate and energy bill can help the U.S. economy grow, from creating short-term jobs to reducing uncertainty and increasing confidence for new private-sector investments.
"Ultimately, economic policy choices, like investment decisions for a family, involve seeking opportunity and involve minimizing risk," Summers said. "If you think about the risks to our ecology, the risks to our security, we minimize those risks with comprehensive energy policy. And if you think about the opportunity to lead in what is really important, we maximize that opportunity with comprehensive energy legislation. That's why energy is so crucial a part of President Obama's economic strategy."
Advocates for U.S. action on climate change welcomed Summers' remarks, saying they saw in them an important message from the Obama administration. With the health care bill signed into law, key White House players are turning their attention to an energy debate that will demand considerable heavy lifting if an energy and climate measure is going to have a chance to pass the Senate and reach the president's desk before the midterm election.
"It was very important symbolically that the rest of the White House, beyond Carol Browner and CEQ, is getting engaged in this battle," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, referring to Obama's top climate and energy adviser and the Council on Environmental Quality.
Obama will have some work to do on Capitol Hill.
Democrats are already worried about a public backlash at the polls after the health care fight, and moderates are dubious about another sweeping expansion of government like climate change. Several other competing priorities also are on tap, including Wall Street regulatory overhaul, more economic stimulus bills and a new Supreme Court nominee.
"It's a crowded space," said Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Obama presidential campaign adviser.
Grumet counted 60 or so legislative days left this year before Congress goes into full-bore campaign mode. "So the question becomes to the president and congressional leadership: Is there a path forward that logically suggests pulling incredible amounts of political force to push this bill forward against all the other imperatives that we're facing?" he said. "And the answer is, 'maybe.'"
Obama 'needs to be active personally'
Many say Summers' remarks underscore that Obama has already decided to push on climate change and energy. And with a new piece of legislation expected next week from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), advocates for such a measure say the president's task is clear.
"He needs to be active personally on everything, from the details to selling this to the American public," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "You can say 'clean energy jobs,' and there will be some, but there will also be some job losses. You've also got to be positive and straight, and I don't know if anyone can do it other than the president."
Several times this year, Obama had made the case for a climate bill, including during the announcement to allow oil and gas drilling for the first time in large swaths of water off the East Coast, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and potentially off Alaska. Deep within the administration, the Treasury Department is also offering technical assistance to Senate staff. And U.S. EPA will soon begin its own modeling.
Once the details emerge on the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, observers expect Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to get into the action themselves by leaning on reluctant swing votes.
"There's something about the president or vice president of the United States talking to you about these things that helps get to 'yes,'" Weiss said, who said the White House could have significant sway on retiring senators like Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).
Obama last month invited 14 senators to the White House for a closed-door talk about energy and climate. Grumet said he can envision another strategy session not too far off.
"If I were the president, I'd be watching, and trying to nurture all these different efforts forward so at some time in early May it'd be possible to say, 'Hey, why don't you all come over to the East Room and see what we have in common,'" Grumet said.
Joe Aldy, a White House aide who works for both Summers and Browner, said time will tell what type of approach Obama might take. "We'll see how the process evolves over the next few weeks and identify if and when it may be productive to do that again," he said. "It's hard to say now without seeing what the product is and where the process goes from there in the Senate."
And as long as lawmakers retain a price on carbon emissions, Aldy said, Obama remains willing to compromise.
"He's not strongly wedded that we have to do it this way or that way," he said. "But what we have to do is stop sort of arguing with each other, make some progress here in the near term, and do so in a way that is both consistent with promoting our economic recovery agenda while addressing the needs to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions. And he clearly thinks that's something that's very possible, something that as we work with the Senate that we try to achieve."
Click here to read Summers' speech.