President Barack Obama is racking up an impressive losing streak when it comes to energy.
Under pressure from Republicans, he embraced offshore drilling — just weeks before the BP oil spill. He offered support for nuclear power, only to watch a disaster unfold in Japan. Gas price hikes in the spring disrupted his economic message. Feeling the heat from Republicans again, he infuriated his green base by bailing out on a long-promised ozone standard.
And then came Solyndra — the California solar company startup Obama touted as a green jobs success story even as it bled money and ultimately collapsed amid political scandal.
"The guy got dealt a bad hand," said a top environmental consultant. "But he's played a bad hand very badly."
It's an emerging consensus coming from the left and the right: While Obama was once viewed as a victim of things he can't control — faulty blowout preventers, a tsunami, gas prices, the tea party — critics on both sides of the aisle say his administration has made matters worse.
"If you've got an agenda bouncing along with no vision and things happen, you look reactive, and they are," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
With Solyndra and the lost $535 million loan guarantee, Obama's entire renewable energy portfolio is likely to be on a permanent state of defense thanks to administration missteps in how it handed out stimulus money.
Some greens, meantime, are pining for Al Gore, or wondering what their world would have been like if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination and then the presidency back in 2008. Looking at Obama's inner circle, they see missteps resulting from not having anyone like them helping to call the shots.
Yes, Carol Browner worked for Obama until earlier this year as his top White House energy and climate adviser. And he has some top-notch experts in Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
But with Browner gone, both appear to be on the outside looking in — never more so than earlier this month, when Obama overruled Jackson on the long-promised rewrite of Bush-era ozone rules.
"He dispassionately picked a set of people who technically were credentialed in their positions, but these people are not sitting in the center of the universe in that White House," said the environmental consultant, who also noted neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden had very deep track records on green issues while serving in the Senate.
Obama arrived in the White House embracing the green jobs mantra that previously existed mainly in California environmental policy and in congressional Democrats' talking points.
And while the president used the "clean energy" message as part of his larger campaign to help with the country's economic recovery, it's lost its luster as unemployment rates hover around 9 percent.
Now, with Solyndra's collapse, Republicans are promising to make the green jobs concept politically toxic for years to come.
"The administration is wrong to think they can turn this economy around with green jobs," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel investigating Solyndra. "If he's focusing on developing a stimulus package for solar panels and wind mills and batteries and he thinks he's going to turn the economy simply on the stimulus for green jobs, he's mistaken."
Cap-and-trade legislation also stands out as something that's been placed on the permanent back burner in part because of how Obama handled the issue.
Once the subject of countless white papers and bipartisan compromise talks, Obama's failure to get the measure across the finish line has resulted in angry screeds from the likes of Gore, who wrote in a Rolling Stone essay this summer that the president "has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis."
"You can't place 'global warming' and an ephemeral promise of 'future green jobs' high on the policy agenda when spurring growth and jobs now is the most important challenge," said Stuart Gottlieb, a Columbia University public affairs professor and former Senate Democratic aide. "This is why Obama actually rebuffed his own EPA's efforts to raise the costs on carbon emitters."
Industry attorney Scott Segal said Obama's woes on energy actually stem from not having enough people around him with real-world experience on energy issues — turning a critique of former President George W. Bush on its head.
"If you ask yourself who really is the top tier energy adviser in the administration, the answer doesn't readily come to mind," said Segal, who represents electric utilities and petroleum refiners at Bracewell & Giuliani. "It doesn't surprise me that major opportunities in the energy sector don't occur to them. They get missed."
As should be expected, the Obama administration pushed back hard against the idea they've been inept on energy.
Oil production has reached its highest levels since 2003, while foreign oil imports as a share of total use have fallen from 60 percent in 2006 to 52 percent in 2009. Renewable electricity will have doubled by the end of Obama's term. And the White House brokered two rounds of new fuel economy limits with auto companies and California officials that will lead to cars and light-duty trucks ultimately averaging 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
"I think it's sort of like the old country song, 'Looking at all the wrong places.' I think you're looking in all the wrong places," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "You can find isolated examples of things that didn't work. And it's easier, with all due respect to you folks, it's easier to report on that than it is to report on the multitude of things that are going right."
With Obama at his side Wednesday in New York, former President Bill Clinton made it clear that the current occupant of the White House is different than his GOP rivals on the energy issue. "He also is one of those Americans who believes climate change is real and deserves a real response," Clinton said.
Bemoaning the political obstacles tied to curbing greenhouse gases, Obama added, "It is technically difficult to figure out how we are going to deal with climate change — not impossible, but difficult."
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said some of Obama's stumbles on energy are a byproduct of inevitable technological risks. And besides, Gore wouldn't be able to do any better.
"If Al Gore was president with 9.5 percent unemployment, I think that you'd see very similar decision making from what you see from this administration," Weiss said. "Rightly or wrongly, they're much more sensitive both in the White House and on Capitol Hill to arguments that such and such a proposal is going to cost jobs."
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 6:08 p.m. on September 21, 2011.
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