Going Green May Be A Little Harder For Obama

Barack Obama has led something of a charmed political life this year. From his improbable defeat of Hillary Clinton to the walkover of John McCain it has been a case of just about everything breaking in his favor.

It looked like at least the first few months of his new administration would continue down the same sort of yellow brick road. A financial crisis of unprecedented proportions guaranteed that he could spend as much money as he might choose on just about whatever program he might choose so long as it in some way the expenditures could be construed to be stimulus and thus of assistance in lifting the country out of the doldrums. Almost on the eve of his assumption of power, however, energy prices threaten to complicate the previously perfect set of circumstances.

Throughout the campaign, his calls, no matter how vague, for energy independence and a move to renewable energy sources fell on the ears of voters who were being forced to deal with an energy price shock not seen in the country for over thirty years. Since the details and costs were never the subject of debate, the feel good message on energy was met, if not with enthusiasm, at least with the sort of nods that said, “yes we do have to do something about that.” The presumption among the electorate being that the “something” would somehow reduce the burden that energy was heaping onto them.

As the world’s economies began to implode late this year dragging the price of a barrel of crude back to reality, the concern over energy prices was replaced by a much bigger concern about employment and just plain surviving in one very scary economy. In fact, just about the only ray of sunshine throughout the Fall has been the decline in the price of carbon fuels. And now, any suggestion or program that might in any manner send that price vaulting back up would be as politically ill-advised as trysting with an aide in an anteroom of the Oval Office.

To be sure, there is plenty of room in the infinite budget that economic distress has created to tuck in lots of green spending. The problem, of course, is that for a lot of these programs, the price of crude needs to be somewhere north of $70 a barrel in order for them to make economic sense. Carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes can approximate the affects of high crude prices even if that isn’t the reality but they’re a non-starter in the face of this economy. Raising the price of energy to the consumer isn’t an option.

So, President-elect Obama has the beginning of a bit of a conundrum. Big promises have been made to the environmental groups and delivery is going to be a bit dicier than it looked a few months ago. Green initiatives slipped into the stimulus plan will no doubt fly through at the outset but sustaining them will become difficult as what once might have amounted to the creation of viable new industries may end up being just another subsidized project with a claim on scarce federal dollars. If the latter turns out to be the case, the public’s patience could quickly wear thin.

Mr. Obama may indeed find a way to glide through this one. On the other hand, he has used up a lot of luck over the past year and fate does have a way of evening things out.

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