Obama skips clean energy to avoid a political battle on jobs

President Obama gave Congress a jobs package that was boiled down to practical provisions -- and clean energy didn't make the cut.

Standing before both parties in the Capitol last night, Obama pressured lawmakers to quickly pass his $447 billion plan for updated highways, renovated schools and tax breaks for hiring businesses and workers. He urged Congress to "pass it right away" more than a dozen times.

The half-hour speech began like a State of the Union address, with Obama entering the House chamber after his Cabinet, to applause. But it ended in a somber tone. There was no soaring language about America's potential in a new era of clean energy. It was an emergency rally to aid out-of-work neighbors, and perhaps the president's political future.

Obama focused on bipartisan policies, picking legislation that had attracted Republican support in the past. To make his point, and to challenge GOP members leery of lending him a hand, Obama tallied the number of Republican co-sponsors on a previous bill cutting the payroll tax. The number was 50.

"Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both Democrats and Republicans -- including many who sit here tonight," Obama said.


He didn't mention the word "energy" once. The bipartisan topic of energy efficiency was also absent in the speech.

"It was very good, but it wasn't much of an energy speech. And that's on purpose," said Sam Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "You want a pure jobs bill, you can't adulterate it with a green bill at the same time right now."

Time for testing politicians, not energy policy

Leading up to the speech, some environmental groups and liberal lawmakers were pushing Obama to think big. Even if clean energy initiatives can't pass Congress, it's still important to provide a vision for the future, they said.

"I believe clean energy creates jobs," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said after the speech. "As part of an overall picture, it would have been a good thing to do."

"It would have been swell if he announced it," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), said of clean energy.

The infrastructure bank in Obama's plan could be used to finance to green projects, Mikulski added, saying that would be "a major step forward in improving the environment."

But overall, there was little criticism from green advocates after the speech.

"No, I think the president did the things he feels the Congress can pass," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said when asked if Obama should have included clean energy. "And he's looking to get things on the table that don't really create traditional, gridlocked ideological struggle."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the president's record of championing the nation's clean-tech sector won't be diminished by its absence in a major employment proposal.

"Over the years, he's talked plenty about that," Carper said, adding that the speech was a "home run with runners on base."

The Solyndra effect

Others said their issue had to be temporarily hidden -- not abandoned -- to give the president cover.

"I think perhaps the White House was concerned that [clean energy] would become a lightning rod for people to criticize his speech, especially because of the Solyndra news this week," said Kate Gordon, vice president of energy policy at the Center for American Progress.

Solyndra received a major loan guarantee in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, only to file for bankruptcy last week. Federal agents raided the facility yesterday, although it's not yet clear why.

The plan's provision to modernize 35,000 schools is a great opportunity for energy efficiency, said Rob Mosher, director of government relations with the Alliance to Save Energy.

The idea to rehabilitate homes and businesses can save energy, too, because they make up 40 percent of U.S. energy use. And refinancing people's mortgages, Mosher held, will save them money -- money they could use on home energy retrofits.

But the plan outlines a host of other options to improve schools besides efficiency measures, like asbestos abatement, modernizing science and computer labs and upgrading technology.

"It's not as if he is completely dismissive of energy efficiency initiatives; it's just that he didn't specifically mention them tonight," Mosher said.

Nor did he mention conventional energy sources -- a sore point for Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.

Economists: Clean energy is not a jobs driver

Dooley said the president's jobs plan will have some "marginal benefit" to the economy in the short run, but he would have liked to see a comprehensive energy plan because that could fuel a "renaissance in manufacturing."

"A policy that will have long-lasting and the same significant impact on the U.S. manufacturing competitiveness lies on a domestic energy policy that fully develops our oil and natural gas as well as our alternative and renewable energy sources," he said. "I'd say it's a foundation for the broader manufacturing sector's ability to increase capacity and jobs."

Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, was disappointed that the president called for infrastructure investment but wouldn't take the brave step of saying how to pay for it -- raising the gas tax, for example.

"That's far short of what we were hoping to see in terms of a commitment to real money to build infrastructure," he said. "Nobody either sees the political necessity or has the political courage to tell the American people what we have to do."

To some economists, clean energy provisions wouldn't have been the right fit for immediate job creation. They see the sector as a key element of America's economy in the long term. But not today.

"I don't think there are any economists who believe that the clean energy sector itself is going to produce great numbers of jobs that will in any significant way deal with the employment crisis," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This is a key part of the advanced manufacturing of the future, and if we as a country lose the solar industry, lose the wind industry to China, for instance ... that's going to hamper us in a range of other sectors and I think retard our capacity in economy going forward."

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