It is now official: President Obama wants four more years. In coming months, Americans will decide if he deserves them. Among other criteria, we will look at how he has moved forward on his many promises – close Guantanamo! End wiretaps! Rebuild our infrastructure! Hire an army of new teachers! Finish the fight against Bin Laden! Reach across the aisle! To be generous, the record is mixed. On the other hand, few candidates are held accountable for their campaign promises; we didn’t really believe the oceans would recede. In office, though, candidates are expected to produce.
As president, Mr. Obama has specialized in spinning out bold ambitions with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a sideshow barker -- we need to double exports, produce more college grads, cut oil imports, criss-cross the country with high-speed railroads, detangle government, freeze domestic spending! These are just some of his exciting targets, well-crafted to blunt prevailing criticisms, but without a magic wand, they will remain just that – targets. It is helpful for President Obama that a great many of his goals have a due date way beyond his term in office; if we don’t secure 80% of our electricity from green sources by 2035 few will go knocking on his door. However, some ambitions will require the president to spend some of his considerable political capital – a gift to the country he rarely makes. Voters may judge a failure on this front harshly.
For instance, in his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama promised to double exports in five years, thus creating two million new jobs. The business community had begun to complain that the White House’s anti-business posture was stifling hiring, and polls showed voters unhappy that Obama had not focused more intently on job creation.
To defuse this attack, the president pledged to push several initiatives, including the increase in shipments abroad. He announced that his administration would “strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia” – three countries with which the U.S. had negotiated trade pacts that had stalled in Congress.
Most analysts concluded that the target was tough, unless the administration purposefully debased the dollar; nearly everyone agreed that adopting the three trade agreements was essential to meeting the goal. With much fanfare and after an earlier embarrassing failure to conclude a deal during his Seoul visit, President Obama announced in early December that negotiators had reached agreement with the South Koreans on revisions to the pending trade treaty. The deal would be the largest concluded since NAFTA. The business community and even critics like the Chamber of Commerce applauded the pact.
In fact, the applause was so pronounced that most Americans probably think we have a trade pact with South Korea. They would be mistaken. Democrats in Congress, backed by Big Labor, oppose the deal, which they claim would export jobs instead of goods. The president, whose reelection bid will require support from unions, has chosen to not throw his weight behind the deal. Bottom line: no new trade agreements.
Another important target, set out last week to show his sensitivity to rising oil prices, calls for reducing oil imports by one third in ten years. As Mr. Obama correctly pointed out, every president for decades has aspired to reduce our reliance on imported oil; none has succeeded. How will President Obama tackle this goal? Presumably by encouraging production of all our energy resources, as he suggested in this year’s State of the Union speech – nuclear, clean coal and natural gas, in addition to solar and wind energy. However, there is no question that the one energy source he dismissed in that speech – oil – will be essential to success. (Obama suggested we eliminate tax breaks to oil producers, claiming that “they’re doing just fine on their own.”)
Because the Fukushima disaster has sidelined our nuclear ambitions, and because environmentalists have slowed the production of our vast new resources of natural gas now available through hydraulic fracturing, the administration will be forced to encourage increased domestic oil production. This will require opening up promising new areas to exploration – a politically difficult ambition made more difficult by a recent report out from the Interior Department.
That agency published a study designed to fend off criticism that the White House had stalled our offshore exploration program in an overreaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill. It purports to prove President Obama’s much-repeated assertion that oil companies are hoarding vast amounts of leased acreage and therefore don’t need new blocks to drill. In fact, the study does no such thing; it includes in the “idle” category, according to the head of the American Petroleum Institute, acreage where companies have sought but so far been denied drilling permits. Also, for the record, oil leases are granted for five and ten-year terms. If no exploration takes place, the lease reverts to the government. It cannot be stockpiled.
Oil companies want a chance to explore the most promising prospects for significant new discoveries – the kind that might actually help meet Mr. Obama’s goal. These opportunities exist mainly on our outer continental shelf- where less than three per cent of the acreage has been opened up. Also, many are in deep water. In fact, they are the kinds of prospects that Brazil is quickly bringing onstream, and that President Obama praised on his recent trip to Rio. Are we really going to import oil from the deep waters off Brazil instead of encouraging our own industry?
Ten years is a long time in politics, but not in the energy business. If he is serious about cutting imports – a worthy goal -- Mr. Obama needs to unleash development of every energy source available to us, even if it means losing a few votes and donations from the green lobby.
Or, he could find a magic wand.