President-elect Barack Obama’s New Energy Mandate, Part 1

November 5, 2008 | Jesse Jenkins,

Energy policy has never featured more prominently in a presidential
election.  Both candidates leaned strongly on their energy agendas
during the campaign, frequently highlighting their plans to increase
America's energy security, reduce energy prices and create jobs.

But while both
candidates agreed that energy was a high priority and rhetorically
supported an "all of the above" approach to new energy sources, the two
candidates proposals actually differed sharply. 

Furthermore, Barack Obama
enjoyed the most success when his energy proposals were linked to his plans for economic recovery and couched in the rhetoric of job
creation.  That makes Obama's historic victory a
clear endorsement of the President-elect's plans to invest in a new energy economy and argues for further integration of his energy plans into his economic recovery agenda. 

While he claimed to support an "all of the above" energy plan, John McCain's energy platform revolved around increasing domestic production of oil and nuclear power. 

McCain repeatedly touted nuclear power as his favorite (if not only) answer to our nation's energy challenge, and "Drill Baby, Drill!" practically became the all-encompassing mantra of the Republican party and it's presidential nominee. 

McCain's repeated absence from key clean energy votes in the Senate and the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate and supposed energy czar was the final proof that a McCain-Palin administration would focus centrally on expanding the old energy sources of the 19th and 20th century - oil and nuclear power - rather than the new energy sources of the future.

In contrast, while Barack Obama eventually embraced expanded drilling, he truthfully told the American people that "we can't drill our way out of our energy crisis."  Similarly, he voiced conditional support for nuclear power, but made it clear that unresolved issues with nuclear waste and security needed to be addressed before nukes could play a central role in America's energy future. 

Instead, Obama called for the creation of a comprehensive new energy economy, with a central focus on increasing vehicle fuel efficiency, electrifying transportation, expanding renewable energy production and retrofitting millions of homes and businesses to be more energy efficient.  He considers this effort a new "national project" and promised to fund it to the tune of at least $150 billion over ten years.

Interestingly, Obama didn't really find his voice on energy policy until the economic crisis hit, unseating energy as the top campaign issue. 

Back in September, when energy prices were the top election issue and Americans were shouting for quick fixes, Obama fumbled for an adequate response.  In many ways, this was understandable, since there really are no quick fixes for high gas prices (that is, unless you consider the Bush energy plan - crashing the global economy! - to be a viable solution). 

So while Obama had long-ago outlined a detailed and comprehensive energy plan that would spur the creation of clean and affordable new sources of energy in the long-term, he must have felt that telling the American people there was no short-term answer was a dangerous move.  It certainly wasn't what Americans wanted to hear, but by remaining largely silent, Obama quickly found himself in the darkest days of the campaign.

Republicans had no qualms about proposing disingenuous solutions to spiking prices at the pump and quickly rallied around "Drill, Baby Drill!"  It worked.  McCain surged, taking the lead in the polls, and for the first half of September, it looked like Obama was headed towards defeat.

Then the economic crisis hit in all it's fury, and everything changed.  The threat of global recession caused oil prices to fall almost as quickly as the Dow, and fears of another Great Depression displaced nearly every other concern. 

That's when Obama realized that he was holding an ace up his sleeve: his energy plan.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Obama hit his stride and brought his energy plan front and center.  He touted opportunities to
strengthen the American auto industry, bring manufacturing jobs back to
American towns and save energy and money while creating new jobs in the
energy efficiency sector. And in speech after speech, whenever he mentioned economic recovery and job creation, he talked about investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.

As he outlined his economic recovery plan on October 13th, Obama reiterated his pledge to "create 5 million new, high-wage jobs by investing in ... renewable sources of energy."  He included funding for "energy efficient school and infrastructure repairs" in his Jobs and Growth Fund proposal and called on Congress to fast track "$50 billion in loan guarantees to help the auto industry retool, develop new battery technologies and produce the next generation of fuel efficient cars here in America."

In an October 22nd interview with Time magazine's Joe
Klien, Obama clearly stated, "[Building a new energy economy] is going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office," saying, "there is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy."

A week later, Obama aired his thirty-minute October 29th TV special, "American Voices, American Stories." In it, he highlighted Seattle-based energy efficiency specialists, McKinstry Company as "a model for the nation," and again pledged to "invest $15 billion a year in energy efficiency
and renewable sources of energy, like wind, solar, and biofuels,
creating five million clean energy jobs over the next decade -- jobs
that pay well and can never be outsourced."

In versions of his "closing argument" speech delivered across swing states in the final week of the election, Obama called for the creation of "an economy that rewards work and creates prosperity from the bottom up," exhorting America to "invest in... renewable energy for our future."

Finally, in his victory speech last night, he reiterated this theme,
saying, "There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created!" 

History will record energy and the economy as the top issues of the 2008 presidential campaign.  In the face of the mounting financial crisis, Barack Obama's calm assurance was the leadership the electorate was looking for.  And as he successfuly united his clean energy and economic recovery proposals, Obama provided the vision of renewed prosperity Americans were hungry for. 

Obama's landslide victory carries with it a clear mandate to build the new energy economy he so frequently spoke of.  But he should be clear-eyed that this mandate derives from the economic crisis and continue to pursue his energy agenda hand-in-hand with his economic recovery plans. 

With so many pressing concerns facing our nation, there will be little time for Obama to tackle issues one at a time.  Instead, our nation's 44th President must find innovative and synergistic solutions that can address several priorities at once.  We will see his abilities quickly tested.  Even before Inauguration Day, Obama will be counted on to offer an economic stimulus agenda, and he'll be expected to act upon his self-selected No. 1 priority,  - building a new energy economy - immediately upon assuming office.  In fact, the fate of the Obama presidency may very well hang on his performance on this critical first test.

In Part 2 of this series, we will focus on how President-elect Barack Obama can get the job done right and advance an integrated clean energy and economic recovery agenda in his first 100 Days in office.


Dan (and Dan, are you the same person?), thanks for your comments. It is indeed gratifying to see our President-elect advocating for clean energy investments as his Number One priority and doing so in a way that breaks out of narrow environmental arguments to embrace the full potential of a new energy economy to transform our nation. While I also agree that regulation and investment/innovation both have a role to play in renewable energy policy, it has taken no small amount of effort to expand beyond the notion that cap and trade and carbon pricing alone will do the trick. It seems that the economic crisis and the emergence of a pragmatic and persuasive presidential candidate were indeed the perfect storm that broke through the old paradigm and opened up a new set of solutions to our interlinking climate, energy and economic crises.

By Jesse Jenkins on 2008 11 11

After reading the Break Through I was excited with the clarity of thought and how spot on these guys are. Finally I could taste it, not this someday 10-15 years from now stuff, but NOW. Come to think of it I have been waiting 10-15 years for this time.
Timing... perhaps a perfect storm? Make no small plans. Thanks for being a beacon, keep up the great work!

By Dan on 2008 11 08

Congratulations to everyone at Breakthrough. This organization has been pivotal at changing the narrative on climate change-- making it winnable for progressives. While I ultimately believe that regulation and innovation will both play parts in renewable energy policy, Breakthrough has indeed changed the way Democrats can win debates on economics, energy, and global warming.

By Dan on 2008 11 07