06.27.10

The Salesman Obama Needs

The president's clean-energy initiatives need a macho, hard-selling champion. How about the governator?

What has happened to America’s survival instincts? The picture of that obscenely fat, genetically altered salmon on the front page of Friday’s New York Times felt like a metaphor for our country’s greedy torpor. The image underneath it of the regular salmon, the slim, agile, swim-against-the-current fish that for so long we’ve been perfectly happy to eat with a nice sprig of parsley and a slice of lemon, looked suddenly mournful and anorexic. His artificially obese cousin, soon to be blessed by the FDA, is about to be pushed into the national diet alongside the super-sized, cheese-drooling Big Macs and cauldron-size sodas we persist in stuffing our faces with. Maternity wards are adapting, with new double-size delivery room beds, and there’s that boom in plus sizes for women and butt-friendly, “relaxed fit” jeans for the guys.

After the belching fury of the earth’s retaliation in the Gulf, you’d think there is enough critical mass to mobilize an extraordinary public clamor to make the green-energy solution as the route to new jobs at the top of the country’s priority list. Maybe there is something gathering steam in the Hand Across the Sand anti-drilling protests across 30 states this weekend. If so, it’s about time. America is so dazed, Washington is polarized, and the Senate so stymied by its filibuster-armed minority that it began to look as if even the BP tragedy is not enough to be the wakeup call. If the worst environmental tragedy in America’s history is not the pivot point on energy, what’s it going to take? The Statue of Liberty rusting and slowly sinking into a tar pit?

Schwarzenegger is big, he’s noisy, he’s larger than life, and he’s earned the credibility to be cast for the role of America’s Green superhero.

From the Oval Office on June 15, President Obama talked about a “national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of its own destiny.” But this soaring goal won’t feel so soaring in the coming weeks. The sordid wrangling as Obama and Rahm Emanuel try to bump and grind their beleaguered energy bill through the Senate will be about an important but, for the cable-TV hordes, utterly mind-numbing legislative thing called “cap and trade.” As a rallying cry, that’s about as electrifying as “public option” or “quality, affordable health care,” about as stimulating as “stimulus.”

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That’s why it feels as if Obama needs a new, big-time face to get out there and sell the hell out of the bill before it becomes another wan piece of comatose compromise. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar turned out to be all hat and no cattle with his sorry oversight of the Minerals Management Service. The recent slew of way-too-personal stories about Al Gore has sidelined America’s reigning environmental champion at the exact wrong moment. And we’re all tired of seeing David Axelrod’s melancholy mustache on the Sunday talk shows. To counteract the acrid slanging matches that will haunt cable and the sneering libels that will spurt out of talk radio, we’re going to need something punchier than Obama invoking the brave new world of “old factories… reopening to produce wind turbines, people… going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses… making solar panels.”

Who is the wordsmith penning these rallying cries—Mike Dukakis?

That’s why our supersize-it culture needs a supersize-it salesman. I nominate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the task. The fact that he’s a Republican ramps up his bipartisan appeal but, more importantly, he’s big, he’s noisy, he’s larger than life, and he’s earned the credibility to be cast for the role of America’s Green superhero. He won his own three-year fight for California to set its own emissions standards for passenger cars. He signed the law in 2006 that incentivized Californians to install solar electric systems. He got his own cap-and-trade bill in 2006, set to take effect in 2012. And in November, he won’t have a job anymore. (Thankfully, as a foreign-born American, he doesn’t have to waste everybody’s time chasing the chimera of an Arnold presidency.)

I know what you’re thinking—Arnold isn’t really popular in California anymore. But so what? California’s already in the bag on energy. Like Gorbachev and Blair, Schwarzenegger may be Mr. Mud at home, but he’s still a star who can open wide everywhere else. 

His wife, Maria Shriver, could do worse than hit the green brick road as well. If this is the moon shot of the 21st century, who better than President Kennedy’s niece to buff up the Camelot allusions?

One of the many beauties of the Schwarzeneggerian option is that the big guy knows how to coin, or lay claim to, a catchphrase (e.g., “I’ll be back”) capable of becoming a sound bite far more resonant than "cap and trade." Fifty Nobel laureates in a kick line could couldn’t grab the airwaves the way Arnold could, and make the public pay attention for once. Anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to get beyond the pencil-head D.C. cadre and the Chicago loyalists to the big spaces of that imaginary land, Caleefornia?

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.