Obama's Playing the Long Game on Climate

And in every realm, from politics to policy to his personal legacy, time is on his side.

When President Obama announced Monday that he'd use his executive authority to cut emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, Republicans rubbed their hands together and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dubbed it a "dagger in the heart of the middle class."

In the short term, what Obama's doing makes little sense. It could hurt his party politically (though that's not, as I noted the other day, necessarily the case). It will drive up energy costs. It will kill jobs for blue-collar Americans. And in coal country, it will make people hate him like their livelihoods depend on it.

In the long term, it's the right thing to do for the planet. Now, liberated by reelection and with an eye on his legacy, Obama's willing to absorb that political heat to accomplish some long-term goals.

That rolling this out ahead of the 2014 elections could hurt vulnerable Democrats is practically a given. But, as The Washington Post's Greg Sargent observed, Democrats see it as part of a much longer battle that will extend into the 2016 presidential race and beyond, painting the GOP as the "anti-science party" among young voters, an increasinly important voting block in national elections. Indeed, as the "coalition of the ascendant" grows, and as the power of coal country shrinks, the politics will increasingly be on Obama's side.

Yet the larger point is that Obama is not following the political calendar at all. He's following the regulatory calendar. Rolling out the proposal now is not a political decision, but a bureaucratic one, since the Environmental Protection Agency needs time for a public comment period.

The new rules, designed to cut carbon emissions as much as 30 percent by 2030, constitute the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and will have a much greater impact on the environment than the much-hyped Keystone pipeline.

The move won't have noticeable impacts on the climate for some time — the rules won't even be finalized until June of 2015 — but it could well be crucial to a broader global plan.

None of this sounds particularly enticing to anyone asking, "How will this affect me now?" But the White House hasn't given up on crafting a PR pitch to those voters either. In his weekly address, Obama said the regulations would prevent up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first year alone; the EPA has driven home similar points. The public-health messaging is a bit misleading since the benefits aren't directly tied to cutting carbon, but rather to cutting the pollutants that hitch a ride with carbon on the way out of coal plant smokestacks. But ancillary benefits (or co-benefits as they're sometimes called) are still benefits. And the White House is right to hype them.

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Taken together, the new climate regulations are the sort of accomplishment that could, along with the Affordable Care Act, come to define Obama's legacy. And over at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait has been making the case for some time.

The president himself has been more subtle about it. Back in January, Obama spoke little about climate change in his State of the Union address, though regulations on coal-fired power plants would feature prominently in his second term.

And when he does talk about it, he doesn't discuss political expediency, or expediency of any sort. After all, a pre-SOTU poll showed the American public was perfectly happy to have Obama not do a thing about the environment in 2014. Specifically, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 27 percent of respondents said addressing climate change should be an "absolute priority" for 2014, while 41 percent said action can be put off until next year (for contrast, 91 percent said creating jobs should be an "absolute priority" for the year).

Instead Obama's opted to frame climate as an issue of conscience. "When our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did," Obama said in the brief section of his 2014 State of the Union address dedicated to climate. It's a line that distills how the optimistic chants of his 2008 campaign have turned to thoughts of the legacy he'll leave behind.

He's made his bid to become the environmental president. And there are many actors who could still thwart him (in some sense, he's already been thwarted in the failure of the Waxman-Markey energy bill of 2009). But in finding a way around Congress and its flawed process, he's made a play at rewriting the political history of climate change, a textbook example of a place where Democracy fails.

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