January 24, 2011

This Weekend’s News: The State of Our Union

Washington is abuzz about what President Obama is likely to say when he delivers his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Many of the Sunday talk shows led with segments about what the nation will hear from the president, and most of the major newspapers had several stories assessing what are likely to be the major themes of his remarks.

Most experts agree that the president’s speech will be thematic rather than policy prescriptive. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, “Advisers said the president would describe five ‘pillars’ for ensuring America’s competitiveness and economic growth: innovation, education, infrastructure, deficit reduction and reforming government.”  Indeed, “job creation,” “economic growth” and “American competitiveness” are almost certainly going to be the major themes of the evening. But what are we likely to hear related to Natural Security? Well if innovation is a pillar of the president’s plan for generating economic growth and sharpening competitiveness, energy is likely to be part of that (we hope).   

The Washington Post published an insider piece on Sunday on the myriad interest groups jockeying for influence with the president and his speech writers as they piece together the president’s remarks. According to the Post, the American Petroleum Institute has been hard at work lobbying for influence: “The group is urging lawmakers and the administration to repeal new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and undo new limits on offshore drilling, and a presidential endorsement of its job-creating potential could help bolster the industry's efforts.” But, as the Post noted, “environmentalists hoping for Obama to talk about the Clean Air Act in the speech want the president to back green energy initiatives, not fossil fuel, as the path to job growth.” According to The New York Times, the president is likely to drive a centrist message, so we could see an interesting balancing act between offshore drilling and clean, green energy initiatives.

The president’s staff is being tightlipped about what is actually in the speech. But besides the process stories and the predictions about what the president may or may not say on Tuesday, there were a number of notable commentaries from experts on what they would like to hear from him, especially related to energy.

Andrew Revkin, author of The New York Times DotEarth blog, weighed in on Sunday about what the president should be saying about energy security. Revkin wrote that the State of the Union address would be the perfect opportunity for the president to begin a yearlong conversation about America’s energy transformation. “President Obama could easily punt on energy this Tuesday,” he wrote. “But this would actually be the ideal time for him to introduce an energy quest as a keystone 21st-century American imperative. Only by expanding our menu of nonpolluting energy choices can we hope to ameliorate a variety of social, geopolitical, climatic and economic risks facing the country and the world.”

Mr. Revkin’s approach – mirroring the president’s success with passing health care legislation – is quite simple and straightforward, and worth reprinting in full:

Obama’s first step should not be to announce a predetermined list of policies to transform our energy system, but to use his State of the Union address to commence a yearlong American conversation on the merits and shape of such an effort. Modeled on the president’s health care summit meeting last February, this conversation would play out in public televised events attended by the president or his cabinet, along with politicians, experts, scientists and American workers, in places ranging from the White House to coal country, from the grounds of a potential site for a new nuclear reactor to the boiler room of a primary school looking to cut emissions and energy bills.

Indeed, bringing key stakeholders into a conversation about America’s energy future is going to be important if the president plans to navigate the new Congress given the shift in balance of power. 

Offering a different approach, Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, penned for NPR what she would have the president say if she were writing the address. Drawing lessons from the military, Hurlburt wrote this speech insert:

[The U.S. military is] asking us not to wait to make the investments in clean energy and green jobs that will change our energy future. On energy and climate, retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan says, 'We never have 100-percent certainty. We never have it. If you wait until you have 100-percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.' So the Pentagon isn't waiting — it's researching next-generation fuels, putting wind farms on bases and solar arrays on hangars.

One of the wisest voices in Congress, working with the Pentagon and colleagues on both sides of the aisle on national security aspects of energy and climate, is Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Tonight, I challenge you to introduce and pass the Gabby Giffords' Energy Security Act, focused on research, technology and jobs that will make us stronger, safer and greener.

With jobs, economic growth and competitiveness likely the key themes of the speech, we are not likely to hear much beyond energy on our issues. Climate change may get mentioned, but only in the context of clean-energy technology as an opportunity for both job creation and mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.  However, I would be happily surprised if climate change gets greater attention. (Climate Progress offered some thoughtful analysis over the weekend on whether the president should omit any mention of climate change in his address that is worth reading in full.)

We will be keeping up on what the president says on Tuesday night, and we will weigh in with a recap that highlights our issues. So stay tuned.

This Week’s Events

Tonight at 7:00 PM, Politics and Prose will be holding a discussion with Mark Hertsgaard on his new book: Hot Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

On Tuesday, the Middle East Institute will host CNAS’s own Andrew Exum for an event on Afghanistan: Looking Ahead to the Next Fighting Season, starting at noon.  Following this event, head over to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where beginning at 2:00 PM the U.S.-Israel Business Initiative will present a panel discussion on the geopolitical and commercial implications of Israel’s recent natural gas discovery.

On Thursday at 7:00 AM, have breakfast with FERC Commissioner Moeller at the University Club of Washington as part of ICF International’s Energy & the Environment Breakfast Series. Then, at 1:30 PM, go to American University Law School for the Second Annual Conference on Developments in International Environmental Law.