Obama Betrays the Left Again

The left is raging about the president’s new plan to jump-start offshore drilling. Eric Alterman on why liberals just don’t get who they’re dealing with.

The first person quoted in John Broder’s New York Times story on President Obama’s decision, announced Wednesday, to start drilling for oil and gas, beginning in 2012, along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska was Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. His statement read: “Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence. It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit.” Actually, that the Sierra Club opposes offshore drilling is not exactly news. If the Sierra Club liked a plan to drill offshore for oil and gas, now that would be news!

Obama is reminding doctrinaire liberals and progressives that while he likes them just fine, and hopes they like him too, he is not one of them.

Like his decision to double down on the war in Afghanistan, together with his embrace of nuclear power, Obama is reminding doctrinaire liberals and progressives that while he likes them just fine, and hopes they like him too, he is not one of them; not when it’s politically inconvenient anyway. Liberals were all set to paint Obama as “ their Reagan.” But this is deeply misguided. Yes, deep down he’s a liberal, but an intensely pragmatic one. As David Remnick demonstrates in his masterful new biography, The Bridge, Obama is unlikely to hold on to deeply ideological views with a goal of reordering American politics from top to bottom. He prefers to take what’s on the table.

So if the Sierra Club is unhappy, that’s OK with Obama. So too the environmental group Oceana. (“We’re appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the ocean”) or Environment America (“It makes no sense to threaten our beaches, wildlife, and tourism industry with spills and other drilling disasters when we’re about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence—cleaner cars and cleaner fuels."). Let alone Greenpeace (“Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's drill baby drill campaign?").

Much more interesting to Obama is a plan that splits Republicans and leaves them wondering what to do next. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), sensing a trap, wanted to know if “the administration [would] actually take concrete steps to finish the studies, approve the necessary permits, and open these areas for production?” His counterpart in the House, John Boehner (R-OH) was having none of it, and played to perfection the “Dr. No” role in which Obama undoubtedly sought to cast him.

"At the same time the White House makes today’s announcement,” Boehner complained, “the Environmental Protection Agency is plotting a new massive job-killer that the American people can’t afford: a cascade of new EPA regulations that will punish every American who dares to flip on a light switch, drive a car, or buy an American product. Americans simply don’t want this backdoor national energy tax that will drive up energy and manufacturing costs and destroy jobs in our states and local communities." (He forgot to mention the new Obama regulations on frogs, vermin, pestilence, and the death of Republicans’ first born.)

McConnell might be right. This could be a trap. As the Times explains, “the Interior Department will spend several years conducting geologic and environmental studies along the rest of the southern and central Atlantic seaboard. If a tract is deemed suitable for development, it is listed for sale in a competitive bidding system. The next lease sales—if any are authorized by the Interior Department—would not be held before 2012.” In the meantime, Senate Democrats can define the debate in a way that works best for them. Right now the administration’s “cap and trade plan,” inadequate and corporate friendly as it is, is deader than Jimmy Hoffa. If this jump-starts that bill by peeling off a few oil-and-gas sensitive conservative Democrats and possibly even a Republican or two (Lisa Murkowski looks like a maybe), then Obama might be able to create the conditions for a deal to revive it—particularly if Republicans start to grow nervous about their “No, No Nanette” electoral strategy going into the fall. (Obama has repeatedly said that lifting the ban would always be considered part of an overall energy and conservation strategy.) And if not, well, the permits are four years away and Obama and the Democrats can at least claim to have defanged the issue of rising gas prices going into November.

But if that’s the plan, then why pre-empt with a concession? Where’s the strategy of giving away something and getting nothing? With no hope of challenging Obama from the left, liberals are, once again, left with unenviable choice of trusting that Obama has figured out something they haven’t and has a plan for how to get it.

In other words, “Hope.”

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.