President Obama will face a markedly different – and more constrained – political environment when he delivers his second State of the Union speech Tuesday.
Last year, Obama put in a plug, albeit obliquely, for a broad legislation to limit greenhouse gases, calling for a “comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”
In private conversations with administration officials and public letters, environmentalists are asking for lines that signal opposition to plans by Republicans and some centrist Democrats to block the EPA’s climate change rules.
The White House doesn’t want Congress to erode EPA’s power to regulate heat-trapping emissions. But greens want a line in the sand drawn in the high-profile speech before Congress.
One environmentalist said Obama can use the speech to send a powerful signal that even must-pass bills can’t be used to block EPA.
“From a political point of view, it is very important that he [Obama] signal Republicans early that if they try and stop EPA via a debt-ceiling bill or a spending bill, that he will veto it,” said the environmentalist who met recently with administration officials.
“That way there is no confusion and no surprises, and that way it will be clear that if they try and do this and he vetoes the bill, then the Republicans will have shut down the government because they want the polluters to pollute more,” the environmentalist said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a liberal member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also wants Obama to tackle the issue.
“Senator Whitehouse is ... hoping to hear President Obama stand firm against Republican efforts to gut the Clean Air Act and strip the critical public health protections this law provides,” said Whitehouse spokesman Seth Larson on Friday.
Larson also noted that Whitehouse “will be listening to hear the president’s thoughts on how to move forward with clean energy initiatives needed to drive private investment in domestic clean energy manufacturing and deployment.”
Whitehouse is more likely to hear Obama speak to the second point than the first.
Touting low-carbon energy’s potential to create green manufacturing jobs and growth has been a staple of Obama’s political message, as White House officials promote spending and tax incentives in 2009’s big stimulus law.
But going forward, the shape of Obama’s energy agenda remains somewhat hazy as the White House prepares to deal with the GOP-controlled House and a weakened Democratic majority in the Senate.
Obama said months ago that energy legislation may move ahead this year in “chunks.” And right after the election he talked up the prospect of bipartisan cooperation natural gas, electric cars, nuclear power and efficiency.
The administration has not, however, laid out a specific legislative plan on energy, although White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in recent months has touted the idea of a renewable electricity standard.
A standard – which has a bit of GOP support – would require utilities to supply escalating amounts of power over the next 10-15 years from sources such as wind and solar. Such plans have failed to overcome widespread GOP opposition.
(Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is pushing a wider mandate that would credit other low-carbon energy sources including nuclear power, which could attract more backing.)
Will any specific proposals on energy come in Tuesday night’s speech?
“Hard to say. There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for a detailed agenda yet,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that works on energy policy.
Bledsoe predicts that on Tuesday, energy will again be woven into a broader narrative about the economy. “The frame for energy and climate will be entirely economic, with a focus especially on freeing domestic investment for job creation and a robust export market,” he said Friday.
Bledsoe said Obama could also reiterate his push for cutting billions of dollars in energy industry subsidies, noting “a broad-based examination of the efficacy of energy subsidies could be an area of common ground with GOP budget-cutters.”
A White House spokesman declined to comment about speech on Friday.
But Obama himself may have previewed the themes of the address when speaking Friday at a General Electric plant in upstate New York, where he announced that CEO Jeffrey Immelt will chair the new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
GE is a major producer of wind turbines and other energy-related equipment.
Obama didn’t plug a major new energy initiative. Instead he pointed to tax credits for capital investments and the stimulus program – extended in the recent bipartisan tax deal – that provides grants for domestic renewable electricity projects.
“We ... extended a program that GE says its customers have used to invest $6 billion in clean energy production across this country –- driving demand for the company’s wind turbines. And I saw one of those big turbines on the way in,” Obama said.
He added: “So we know we can compete. Not just in the industries of the past, but also in the industries of the future.”
This story was updated at 2:22 p.m. on January 23.