White House rushes to define Keystone message ahead of Republicans

The White House is working to prevent President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from becoming a political liability in an election year that will be dominated by jobs and the economy.

White House and campaign officials are emphasizing Obama's energy record in broad strokes -- highlighting steps the administration has taken to encourage oil and gas development and investments in clean energy. Those steps, the officials say, create far more jobs than approval of Keystone would have.

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The decision Wednesday to deny TransCanada’s Keystone permit has further united Republicans around a common message: Obama is a job killer. And the GOP vowed last week to continue pummeling the president over Keystone both in Washington and on the campaign trail.

“We are absolutely committed as a Republican team to keep the Keystone pipeline on the front burner,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told reporters Friday during the House GOP retreat in Baltimore.


Obama denied the Keystone permit last week after Republicans won inclusion in a payroll tax package of a provision that required a verdict on the project by Feb. 21. The pipeline would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

While the rejection brings clear benefits for the White House as it pleases Obama's environmental base, it also opens the president up to new attacks from the right.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Republicans may gain political traction with the Keystone attacks.

He said that Republicans will weave Keystone into a narrative about a president who isn’t doing enough on jobs.

“If the argument sticks, it could be an argument that concerns independent and moderate voters, and he has to be very careful that that doesn’t happen,” Zelizer said.

Obama’s vulnerability on the pipeline issue, and ability to counter the GOP attacks, will depend on the strength of the economic recovery, Zelizer argued.

The economy added 200,000 jobs in December and the jobless rate fell to 8.5 percent, good news for Obama as unemployment fell to its lowest rate in three years. But the still-sour state of the economy is likely to pose a threat to Obama absent continued improvements.

“If the unemployment numbers don’t move, it will be difficult to inoculate himself [against Keystone attacks],” Zelizer said.

The White House moved quickly last week to counter Republican claims that Obama’s energy policies are further burdening the already ailing economy.

White House and campaign officials are parrying attacks on Keystone by offering a broader defense of Obama’s record on oil-and-gas, pointing to increased production in recent years and steps the administration is taking to expand development.

“President Obama has pursued a comprehensive energy strategy that has increased our domestic energy production, reduced our dependence on foreign oil to below 50 percent for the first time in 13 years and supported more than 224,000 clean energy jobs,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement

Meanwhile, Heather Zichal, Obama’s energy and climate adviser, wrote an op-ed in USA Today and a post on the White House blog last week defending the decision.

She sought to undercut Republican claims that Obama’s rejection of the pipeline shows that the administration isn’t making creating new jobs a top priority. The GOP says Keystone would create 20,000 construction jobs and hundreds of thousands of other jobs over the life of the project.

Recovery Act investments in clean energy “have created hundreds of thousands of jobs and spurred thousands of clean energy projects across the country,” Zichal wrote on the White House blog Wednesday.

She added that the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program has helped finance 40 energy projects that will create 60,000 jobs, and, disputing industry and GOP claims about Keystone’s jobs potential, said the pipeline would create only a “few thousand” temporary jobs.

In her USA Today op-ed, Zichal argued that Republicans would have rallied around the president’s jobs plan if they truly wanted to improve the economy.

“So, before they engage in more political theater, they should take a look at the important bipartisan proposals on their desk that will strengthen the middle class, create jobs and improve the economy,” she said.

Administration officials are also signaling more broadly that Obama will not shy away from campaign trail battles over green energy despite the debacle over Solyndra, the solar panel company that collapsed last year despite receiving a half-billion dollar Energy Department loan guarantee in 2009.

The White House, before Solyndra failed, had cast the company as an example of Obama’s effort to boost green jobs.

Officials are nonetheless expressing confidence they can successfully make the case that federal support for emerging technologies will be a winner with voters.

The Obama campaign touted the administration’s energy record in its first campaign advertisement, which was released last week.

While the ad doesn’t mention Keystone, it lays the groundwork for the president’s response to the pipeline criticism by arguing that investments in renewable energy can create millions of jobs.

Republican presidential candidates immediately pounced on Obama’s decision to reject the pipeline. And they suggested that the decision will emerge as a major GOP theme on the campaign trail.

“The Keystone pipeline is a prime example of President Obama making decisions based on special interests’ demands instead of doing what is best for the American people,” Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner, said in an email.

“Gov. Romney will continue focusing on his plans to get this economy going again and hold President Obama accountable for his failures,” Saul said.

Romney twice raised Keystone at Thursday night’s GOP debate in South Carolina even though the pipeline and energy in general were not the subject of questions.

“Because he has to bow to the most extreme members of the environmental movement, he turns down the Keystone pipeline which would bring energy and jobs to America,” Romney said of Obama.

Obama’s reelection campaign was quick to rebut Romney’s Keystone comments, showing they’re sensitive to the political challenges that the pipeline issue presents.

“Mitt Romney has made clear that he would rubber-stamp whatever the Republicans in Congress demand of him, whether it’s a budget that would make the middle class and seniors foot the bill for more tax breaks for the wealthiest or refusing to evaluate how a pipeline would affect our public health and natural resources,” LaBolt said in a statement.

Beyond Romney, other candidates’ plans to slam Obama on the stump over Keystone were clear Saturday night.

“The president’s decision to veto the Keystone pipeline – you have to wonder how out of touch with reality this administration is,” GOP hopeful and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in his victory speech after winning the South Carolina primary.

Environmental groups say Republican attacks on Obama over Keystone are unlikely to resonate with voters, while also acknowledging that the decision to reject the project fired-up the president’s liberal base.

“I think it would be a stretch to envision how it becomes a real concern for voters,” Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said.

“Campaign issues that are murky or confusing don’t often rise to the top of election debates. Republicans are throwing a lot of things against the wall to see what sticks,” Nayak said.