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The Case for Obama

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8 | Launching a Clean-Energy MoonShot

Obama's failure to curb global warming by passing a comprehensive climate bill stands as his most glaring legislative defeat. But the absence of a cap on carbon pollution has been offset in large part by the enormous strides Obama has made toward a cleaner, lower-carbon economy. With the Recovery Act, the president effectively launched what greens have long agitated for: an Apollo-like moonshot on clean energy.

Consider that the stimulus targeted $94 billion for clean energy — making unprecedented investments in everything from weatherizing federal buildings to building solar thermal plants in the Mojave. Roughly half of the money involves direct federal spending. But the administration structured the other half — $46 billion — as matching funds and loan guarantees that are realized only when the private sector steps up with capital of its own. According to a report from the president's Council of Economic Advisers, every dollar of federal co-investment is attracting more than $2 in private capital. Add it all up, and the Recovery Act is driving more than $200 billion in public and private investment in clean energy — $20 billion more than the Apollo program would have cost in today's dollars.

"Everybody calls Obama the first black president," says Jones, the former green-jobs czar. "But if you were from Mars, and couldn't see race, you'd call him the first green president. That's what distinguishes him on a policy level from every preceding president: this incredible commitment he's made to repowering America in a clean way."

What is the country getting for this moonshot? The investment is on track to double the nation's renewable-energy generating capacity by 2012 — bringing enough clean energy online to power New York around the clock. It will also double the nation's manufacturing capacity for wind turbines and solar panels, driving down the cost of clean energy so it can compete with fossil fuels — even if Congress doesn't pass a carbon cap.

The president has also moved aggressively on other fronts to reduce carbon pollution. Cash for Clunkers retired nearly 700,000 gas guzzlers and replaced them with cars that, on average, are 58 percent more fuel-efficient. In the first-ever CO2 restrictions imposed on cars and light trucks, automakers are now required to boost fuel standards high enough to save nearly 2 billion barrels of oil and to reduce carbon emissions by 21 percent over the next two decades. In January, the EPA is expected to do what Congress refuses to: set limits on carbon emissions for large industrial polluters like coal plants and cement factories. And the president has already put America's biggest greenhouse polluter on a carbon diet: By executive order, all federal agencies are now required to reduce their carbon pollution by 28 percent in the next decade. That act alone is enough to scrub 101 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere — as much climate-heating pollution as Ireland and Hungary generate combined.

"We have running room to push this forward," says Axelrod. "We can hit the targets we want to hit in terms of reducing emissions, while hopefully spurring a whole lot of economic activity around these new technologies. We're going to keep pushing on that door."

Taken together, Barack Obama's achievements are not only historic in their sweep but unabashedly liberal. By contrast, President Clinton's top legislative victories — NAFTA and welfare reform — catered to the right wing's faith in free markets and its loathing of big government. "When you add them all together, it's clear that Obama's accomplishments have been underrated," says Brinkley. "Saving the auto industry, health care, getting out of Iraq — these are big things for the progressive movement."

But as effective as Obama has been at implementing progressive policy, he has been lousy at capitalizing on those victories politically. Much of his activist base can't seem to get over the compromises he made to win such historic reforms, and average Americans are largely clueless about the key achievements of his presidency. Polls show that only 12 percent of Americans realize that Obama cut their taxes; indeed, twice that number thought the president had raised them. Just 29 percent understand that the stimulus boosted the economy, and 81 percent believe that the deficit-slashing health care reform will actually increase the deficit.

"You have this conundrum," says Wilentz, the Princeton historian. "Obama has an admirable record of accomplishment, but the political dynamics are all moving the other way. How do you explain that?" 

Pressed on this disconnect, Axelrod argues that the president has been too busy with governance to get caught up in the scrum of politics. "We're focused on trying to build a better country for the future," he says. "The president's attitude is that the politics will ultimately take care of itself."

But heading into November, it appears that the president's high-minded and seemingly sincere disdain for politics could prove the undoing of what he has fought so hard to accomplish. Yes, he has succeeded in moving the Senate to action — but along the way he has fumbled the support of his own electorate. Progressive activists in the party remain convinced that Obama could have won even grander victories, if only he had been willing to fight harder and compromise less. Having deeply invested in the image Obama sold them as a candidate — a new breed of politician, determined to bring radical transparency to Washington and open up government to average Americans — they have experienced his reliance on backroom negotiations as nothing short of a personal betrayal. And instead of working to soothe disgruntled supporters, Obama and his inner circle have flamed the discontent by telling liberal critics to "stop whining" and "buck up."

"It's somewhat inexplicable why his record hasn't been communicated better, particularly the health care bill," says Goodwin. "That's the responsibility of the president — and we thought of him as such a good communicator." The mishandling of the politics of health care reform, adds Wilentz, has cost Obama dearly. "Where was the moment?" he says. "There should have been goose bumps: health care! But it didn't happen. What should have been a crescendo was a diminuendo. You have this great accomplishment and everybody feels terrible — because of the politics."

Even in the aftermath of the law's passage, Obama did not use his legendary political gifts to help voters look past the ugly tactics and appreciate the historic gains that had been accomplished. Nor did he seek out a political salve — say, an immediate suspension of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — to ease their discontent. As a result, instead of heading into the midterm elections with popular support for his historic victories, Obama and his fellow Democrats have been forced to retreat into a much-diminished argument: You may not like us, but the Republicans are way worse. "Folks, wake up!" Obama hollered at a recent fundraiser in Philadelphia. "This is not some academic exercise. Don't compare us to the Almighty — compare us to the alternative."

In an hour-long interview with Rolling Stone, Axelrod struck a conciliatory tone. What Obama has delivered as president, he concedes, has fallen short of the expectations Obama inspired as a candidate. "I understand why there's this dissonance out there," Axelrod says. "But Democrats don't have the luxury of lamenting the fact that we've only gotten 70 to 80 percent of what we wanted done. Because that 70 to 80 percent is at risk."

That much, at least, is undeniable. In their Pledge to America, the Republicans have vowed to roll back health care reform and block any unspent stimulus funds. Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has promised to gut the consumer protections of Wall Street reform. Armed with subpoena power, Republicans could soon dog the administration with ginned-up scandals and kangaroo-court drama, even as the party tries to shut down the government under House Speaker John Boehner.

"There's so much at stake here," Axelrod says, almost pleading. "And we ought to fight like hell — because what's on the other side is a retrograde disaster."

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