Reporters Roundtable:

E&E reporters Geman, Samuelsohn give analysis of Obama address

Just one month into his term, President Obama delivered his first speech before a joint session of Congress last night. The address focused on solutions to the economic crisis and how energy, in particular, can help get the United States back on track. Was the president specific enough on the types of energy and environment legislation he would like to see from Congress this year? How did members of Congress react to the energy and climate portions of the speech? During today's OnPoint, E&E senior reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Ben Geman give their analysis of the president's address.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today to discuss President Obama's first speech before a joint session of Congress are E&E senior reporters Ben Geman and Darren Samuelsohn. Ben, Darren, thanks for coming on the show.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Ben Geman: Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: Energy was a major theme throughout the president's speech as he discussed how the U.S. is going to emerge from the current economic crisis. I sat down with Congressman Jay Inslee after the speech to get his reaction on what the president said on energy and specifically if the president hit the mark on energy. So let's take a listen to that.

Jay Inslee: You bet, big time! I mean some people said, oh, he would back off because we're in this deep economic hole. But he, with great brilliance and I think boldness tonight, recognized that the best way to create jobs is indeed to go out and build a clean energy economy for the United States. He recognized that there's job creation in electric cars. He recognized that we can't replace our addiction to Saudi Arabian oil with an addiction to Korean lithium ion batteries. He recognized that there are thousands of new jobs laying wire across this country to deliver renewable energy to cities across America.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, did the president hit the mark on energy? What were the reactions you were hearing in Statuary Hall?

Ben Geman: Well, it was certainly mentioned extremely prominently in the speech. You know, I think the biggest thing was that when he sort of discussed the budget proposal that's going to be coming out this week he said we're going to have to pare back some areas, but there's some areas where we're going to sort of go even further. And he said the big and most important areas are energy, health care, and education and then he, in fact, from there said energy is the first thing. And from there he didn't provide a huge number of specifics necessarily on the policy front, but what he did talk about were these themes that he's sort of been talking about around the discussion of the stimulus package, which is the need to sort of substantially increase investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. And he set out this goal of doubling renewable energy production over the next three years. So to the extent that you've got communities that are very interested in seeing a ramp-up of these technologies this was seen as sort of extremely good news and it was very well received. At the same time, what I think was sort of deferred a little bit and wouldn't have necessarily been sort of appropriate for a speech like this was aside from talking about the need to sort of ramp-up the funding levels, which he pledged to do, he didn't talk a lot about some of the specific energy policies that he wants to pursue. Now, there's a big exception to that, which was the discussion of cap and trade, which I'm sure we'll get into. But as far as these issues that Congress is going to be confronting beyond spending, such as do we mandate that utilities provide increasing amounts of renewable energy, other types of sort of issues on the energy policy front that go beyond the funding levels, that was pretty much absent from the speech. So, you know, I was speaking to one member of Congress, Senator Shaheen and she said, look, you know, he sort of gave a us what she said was sort of essentially a very sort of inspiring vision on energy and it will be up to Congress to kind of fill in the details of that vision. So, I think that's where we'll see more of the discussions of some of the policy specifics.

Monica Trauzzi: And Harry Reid is pushing for an energy bill in the next couple of weeks, so we might see something coming out of Congress rather soon.

Ben Geman: Yeah, I mean the timing is not entirely clear, but certainly this spring he's looking to sort of do something and he's mentioned transmission in particular. And that's something that the president discussed during the State of the Union, which is the need to sort of lay down a lot more transmission lines in order to sort of get renewable energy from places where it's very bountiful to population centers. So that was certainly discussed a lot and the president also sort of framed it alongside this discussion of sort of economic recovery and long-term prosperity sort of continuing on this theme of the idea that this is not only sort of good from an environmental and kind of security standpoint, but that this is something that can sort of play a job creating role.

Monica Trauzzi: And Darren, like Ben mentioned, the president did something pretty significant by calling on Congress to send him legislation that caps greenhouse gas emissions. How key is this on both the domestic and international fronts?

Darren Samuelsohn: It was the first time, I think, that a president has ever mentioned the word cap and he did mention cap and trade when he said a market-based cap on greenhouse gas emissions. So from that standpoint, I mean it got lawmakers thinking about the issue in a way that they maybe haven't before. Certainly, some members who are not on the direct committees of action haven't maybe necessarily been thinking about this day in and day out. Certainly, within the chamber, you got a sense that all of the Democrats stood up and I specifically noticed that Barbara Boxer seemed very happy that this happened and Charles Schumer, who was sitting right in front of her turned around, knew that this was Boxer's issue and there was sort of an awkward high-five between the two of them. Dick Durbin also standing right next to Charles Schumer also was sort of staring at Barbara Boxer sort of like this is the nod to you. Over on the Republican side, John McCain was one of the few that did stand up, as did I think Lindsey Graham, Mel Martinez, I might be leaving out one or two others, Olympia Snowe stood up and applauded. And on the House Republican side nobody stood up and applauded. So, clearly, it looked like a partisan issue with a few Republicans sprinkled here and there.

Monica Trauzzi: Were you surprised by the lack of specificity when discussing climate? There were no targets mentioned, no real goals. Was that an expectation going into this speech and did he sort of miss an opportunity here?

Darren Samuelsohn: I'm not surprised that he left that stuff out. In a State of the Union speech, which I guess this wasn't technically a State of the Union speech, but in one of these speeches you don't usually go into too deep of specifics, especially something like this, which is probably two or three months from actually seeing floor action. I mean we're at a point in the legislative process where I don't even know that the chairman has started writing the bills that are going to be moving. We haven't really seen from Obama his set of principles. In his campaign he gave us a pretty clear sense, 80 percent with 100 percent auction were sort of his broad goals. And we should be seeing more from the administration coming up as this Hill debate gets a little bit more…when it starts to move a little bit more. But at this point, I think, in a State of the Union Address the key point that he was probably trying to get across was I need you lawmakers to be thinking about this. This is something for 2009, also for 2010. I think right now in the media you're seeing a little bit of reporters asking questions and writing stories about is this going to happen this year? And if it doesn't happen this year it's the end-all, be-all. And I think that a lot of the work is going to get done this year and then actually the signature or the signing ceremony, if that could get to happen, that's going to be next year.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the reaction in Statuary Hall after the speech, what were you hearing?

Darren Samuelsohn: The reaction in Statuary Hall was, I guess, kind of predictable. I mean a lot of the Republicans who don't agree to this stuff were saying, well, we expected Obama to mention cap and trade because he campaigned on it. And they were making the same point that you can't do this during the tight economic times and I heard that from Republican leaders, I heard that from Senate Republican leaders. So, clearly, from our side and from the coal state Republican side, there's this question of why should we be doing this? From the Democratic side it was interesting, talking to some of those gang of 15, the people who are sort of the moderates. They were still a little bit unclear and unsure and really weren't ready to embrace Obama on cap and trade. Jay Rockefeller specifically said, you know, cap and trade is not going to work, which was pretty interesting to hear that from him. A couple of others, Claire McCaskill, Dorgan, Conrad, they did seem a little bit more interested in talking, but I think Obama's just mentioning it. You know, these are Democrats who want to be working with President Obama. They don't want to be seen as obstacles. The only other person I guess I would mention is Lindsey Graham, who made a specific point of mentioning that there was no nuclear statement in there. So while he wants to support cap and trade he said, it was pretty upset with the omission on nuclear power.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, the president got a lot of criticism after the stimulus passed because it lacked bipartisanship. Did he do enough to convince Congress that this is something that he wants and that he's going to push for, for the remaining legislation that we see this year?

Ben Geman: Well, you know, again, he's certainly put the issue very much front and center, but the sort of tenor of this speech was not necessarily going to be one that brought up the issues that are going to be sort of more complex and divisive. I mean for example, I saw Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the speech and I asked him about this sort of climate and energy mention. And he said that he doesn't support cap and trade, which of course he does not. But he then added that I think in general the kind of thrust of the speech was about sort of coming together and getting us out of this economic sort of crisis and economic problems that we're in. And so I think in that respect it sort of made sense that perhaps the president didn't get into sort of too many specifics because he was sort of generally saying these are kind of some of the energy goals we support. On the other hand, look, he talked about renewables, talked about efficiency. I was talking to Senator Brownback afterward and he expressed a little bit, Brownback is a Republican of Kansas, and he expressed some disappointment that the president didn't discuss more of where we're going to get our domestic energy from and, in particular, noted that we need nuclear, we need coal. So, you know, I think that some of these energy discussions go from the kind of 30,000 foot level that were in the speech to some of the more specifics that sort of go alongside any legislation. I think we're going to sort of see some of these more divisive issues surface more than they certainly did in the speech.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, what did you think about what he had to say about the auto industry at the end?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, that was interesting. I mean certainly it satisfied people like Carl Levin and John Dingell who were sitting there and wanted to have some sort of nod for going forward. I mean you get this sense there's this auto task force that they've created and it's just getting started and it's going to be working its way into trying to figure out how the auto industry should be restructuring. And at the same time, you have all these environmental regulations coming down the pike, whether it be implementation of the CAFE standards or the California waiver decision that the EPA is making. So there's this kind of coming together of all of these things at one time and I think that the Democrats from Michigan are going to be kind of pushing Obama to try and make this as beneficial to the domestic auto industry as they can and you're going to be having the environmentalists pushing as well. So, I think, Obama wants to try and tie it all together, the restructuring and the environmental regulations, that's what Carol Browner said over the weekend at the National Governors Association meeting, talking about sort of a nationwide greenhouse gas standard. You know, this is probably also designed to try and prod lawmakers on the cap and trade debate to kind of come to the table too. So it's kind of all coming together. And certainly there's this pushback in terms of the money, should General Motors and Chrysler be getting additional loan money as well? So there's still a lot to be determined.

Ben Geman: One of the things that I was going add is I think some of the kind of prominence of the mention of energy in the speech were also an effort to say that, you know, despite all these other challenges we face, this is not an issue that he's going to put on the back burner in any respect. In fact, he very plainly said I see increased investment in energy technologies and deployment is something that is part of our efforts to kind of create long-term economic growth. So I think that was a real signal and in many ways a welcome signal to folks that are supportive of these technologies that this is not something that's going to be kind of shunted aside in any respect.

Darren Samuelsohn: I want to bring up one final point as well that I want to make, is sort of at the end of his energies talk he talked about this being difficult and it's being hard and sort of trying I think to kind of make people know that they're going to be having to take their medicine here, that it's going to be costly, it's going to be expensive, which I mean that's sort of the whole point of the cap and trade process. It is going to make your energy bills more expensive and I think Obama is trying to get people prepared for that.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, real quick here, final question. Was there a sense, during the speech, that he was still sort of making the case for the stimulus? He mentioned the different provisions throughout the speech. Was he still trying to prove to the American people that this is something that's needed?

Ben Geman: Yes, in the sense that if you look at what the stimulus was about, it was about kind of, again, sort of massively increasing the existing amount. I mean Carol Browner at that same meeting referred to it as the biggest energy bill in the history of the U.S. You know, the stimulus bill was largely about a sort of huge increase in investment on a lot of issues and it was much less about sort of making new kind of energy policies, if you will. And I think he sort of adhered pretty closely to that theme and what he did was he intertwined it with the idea that the U.S. needs to reemerge as sort of…or the U.S. needs to be more of a leader on these technologies. I mean one line in particular that he noted was that, look, it disappoints him when plug-in hybrid vehicles that roll off the lines in the U.S. are using batteries made in Korea. And the stimulus, in fact, did include provisions that are aimed at kind of spurring more of that advanced battery production here in the U.S. So yeah, I mean to answer your question in the long way, the energy themes that he brought up were very much kind of about the themes that were in the stimulus. And then of course he said, but look, we're not done yet because, again, when he mentioned the upcoming budget rollout he mentioned energy as the first and biggest thing that he wanted to focus on.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you both for coming on the show.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Ben Geman: Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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