The Obama Plot for a Carbon Tax

Photograph: Win McNamee/pool/EPA

Teachable moments are rare in America. George Bush missed the chance right after 9/11 to call for a new era of service to the nation; he asked instead that Americans do more shopping.

Tuesday night, President Obama did not call for a tax on carbon. He didn’t even ask the Senate to pass the cap-and-trade legislation that emerged from the House.  Instead, he said there were lots of good ideas out there and he’s willing to consider any of them — which seemed more like a way of declaring cap-and-trade dead.

But maybe the President has a more subtle strategy in mind. Here’s what New York Magazine’s John Heilemann thinks may be going on:

Lacking the 60 votes necessary for cap-and-trade, the administration plans to get behind a more modest conservation measure in the Senate, then push for a carbon pricing mechanism during the conference committee merger with the House bill — and do so during a lame-duck session after the midterms, when victorious Democrats will find it easier to make a tough vote and losing ones will be freed of political constraints.

It’s plausible. After all, the President has now gotten BP to agree to a $20 billion escrow fund. Maybe the MO of this president is, like Teddy Roosevelt’s, to speak softly and carry a big stick — make nice to adversaries in public and conceal his weapon until he gets them behind closed doors.

But if that’s his strategy it’s a curious one considering Obama’s great gift (on display especially during the 2008 presidential election) to stir the nation and mobilize it behind him.

Furthermore, given the unprecedented power of large corporations to call the shots in Washington aided by unlimited campaign contributions and platoons of lobbyists, surely the only way to advance the public interest these days is to rally Americans to a cause. Closed-door conference committees, back-room deals, and lame-duck sessions keep the public out. And when the public is shut out, the big guys have even more clout.

Yet hard-boiled Washington hands I talk with disagree. They point to the $80 billion back-room deal that bought off Big Pharma for health care. They claim there’s no other way to do business in Washington now because public opinion is too easily manipulated.

They say Machiavellian (more accurately, Emanuelian) deal-making behind closed doors ain’t pretty but the public can’t be counted on. The only way to get close to a carbon tax or anything else that’s good for America is to buy the bums off.

Maybe. But when the bums are paid off the public gets stuck with the tab. We’ll be paying far more for our drugs under the new health care law than otherwise because of the deal with Big Pharma.

The $20 billion deal with BP was also crafted in secret, and we have no way to know what assurrances were given the oil giant that might cost us later.

So too with the financial reform bill that’s now being finalized in conference committee, and with any potential energy bill where the real deals are made in the back room.

robert_reich.jpgRemember the back-room deal that bailed out Wall Street? We still don’t have all the details but it’s clear the public was taken to the cleaners, and the titans of Wall Street are beaming through their bonuses.

Call me old fashioned but I still think democracy is better than corporatist negotiation. And when we have a president as articulate and thoughtful as the one we now have — more capable than almost any occupant of the Oval Office in modern times to educate the public about real challenges and real solutions — he and his advisors do a disservice to the American people when they make the important deals in secret.

Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission


  1. Edpeak says

    Obama is already using “his power to inspire” including in that speech is exactly what he was going. The other99% of the time when he president isn’t on TV giving a speech, the Fox News, the other mainstream media, the Republican talking heads, the right wing talk radio, do their thing. They get 24/7, so expeting that the president can un-do that with high rhetoric is just fantasy. We need to replace corporate run, for profit advertiser-funded media as our 99% with a new media, replace “one dollar one vote” in our elections, and other institutional changes. It’s tempting to think Obama has the power to do it but just lacks the ‘will’ but that’s not the world we live in. Do me a favor and replace the Rush Limbaugh and Fox, etc, or even cut them in half and replace them with community-radio and community run TV and then see what happens…the playing field is so sharply tilted to right wing and corporate that sorry, the Prez doesn’t have the power “if only he said the right words at a few more speeches” to change it all…we have to get laws, media structure, etc, changed

  2. Edpeak says

    Obama is not perfect not is he playing multi-dimensional chess, but he is playing chess. I’m a long time green and third party voter who wants policy much more progressive than Obama. But… If I had a dollar for every progressive critic of Obama who conveniently forgets one small, tiny, little fact, that he doesn’t pass laws, Congress does, I’d have more money than BP and ExxonMobil put together (figuratively…these monsters make more in profit than the population of the earth…)Tantrum fits about “but he should be a leader and just FORCE Congress to pass it” is nonsense. The reason Bush and the Republicans can do things like that is they are fighting for the Haves against the Have-nots, so they can ram things through. If you’re trying to pass laws for the have-nots, it’s an uphill battle to get a vote from most members of congress…Change the campaign finance laws, lobby your representative and senator, march, demonstrate, and together we have more power than the president himself, who can’t get what congress won’t pass if enough representatives and senators are afraid of right-wing attack-ads against them about losing jobs or being a eco-nut and other nonsense. Look around your neighborhood or city or state and you’ll see the voters who fall for those ads and who make it very very hard for congress to have enough votes …we need to wake those neighbors up

  3. ClimateTF says

    I feel strongly both that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best means by which to stem the tide of global climate change AND that it should be legislated in the light of day. IMHO, if the American electorate were properly educated about a carbon tax–the solution the world’s leading economists and scientists agree is best–they would support it wholeheartedly. And it’s long past time that we demand that the people who represent us in Washington put good public policy ahead of political expediency.

  4. SK says

    Thank you Robert Reich. It’s pretty amazing that Obama apologists are still pretending our Prez is gonna come through with what he told us he would do, from energy policy to the wars to gay rights. Right now, Obama HOPEfuls are saying he’s playing 11th dimensional chess and will take care of everything after the midterm elections. Sheesh.

    This guy has the power to inspire and mobilize millions of US citizens, and instead he’s just taking us for a ride while the super rich continue the fleecing of the middle class. So sad.

  5. Mad Jayhawk says

    20 billion? I heard that Jesse Jackson is heading for the Gulf to help with the distribution of funds a couple of days before it was announced there was going to be a 20 billion dollar slush fund. We will be watching that with glee, er, interest. Flies to honey comes to mind. ACORN and the unions better get moving before it is too late and all the money is spoken for. Community development, community outreach, training classes, re-education of displaced workers, etc. etc. It is all coming to an oil-soaked Gulf coast community near you.

  6. says

    Look at Obama’s record on energy – and it is clear he has no plans for a renewable energy future.

    The Rolling Stone Article on the gulf spill pretty much says it all…During Obama’s presidency record numbers of oil permits were issued in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, even more than under Bush. Why would anyone expect Obama to support alternative energy, when his oil policies are to the right of Bush/Cheney?

    The sooner progressives stop believing that Obama has any shred of liberal values the sooner people can mobilize on behalf of people, the environment, peace, and human rights.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *