The budget released this week by the White House is by far Obama’s most ambitious statement of his legislative priorities since 2009, when, as a newly elected President, he produced a plan brimming over with initiatives like Obamacare, education reform, new spending to aid the depressed economy, and a cap-and-trade régime to curb carbon pollution. Obama’s 2009 budget presaged two years in office that were so legislatively far-reaching that, in Washington policy circles, the document was sometimes called the Big Bang.
This new budget approaches the ambitions of 2009—with one glaring omission. There are sections aimed at consolidating Obama’s first-term successes: the mundane but crucial details of implementing health-care and Wall Street reforms. He asks Congress to reform immigration, pass gun-control measures, overhaul the tax code, make pre-school universal, boost American manufacturing, and cut defense spending—an aggressive second-term agenda. And in the section of the two-hundred-and-forty-four-page document that has received the most attention, he details his offer—or rather, re-offer—to Republicans of a long-term deficit-reduction deal: cuts to Social Security and Medicare in return for more revenue. Like the 2009 document, the new budget is more or less the prose version of Obama’s campaign poetry.
But the second Big Bang also represents a major dodge on climate change. Over the last two years, Obama has consistently talked about his second term as the time when he would forcefully confront the challenges of a warming planet. As I reported last year, in private conversations he has told people that dealing with climate change is one of the few ways that he believes he could fundamentally improve the world decades after he’s gone from office.
In his three most important speeches of the last year, he promised to confront this threat. In his convention speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, last September, he vowed, “my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.”
More powerfully, in his Inaugural Address, on January 21st, he said:
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.
And in his State of the Union address, on February 12th, he seemed to go beyond the vagueness of his campaign rhetoric and promise action. He pointed out that the last fifteen years have included twelve of the hottest years ever recorded, and he noted that “heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods all are now more frequent and more intense.” He promised he would “act before it’s too late.”
Indeed, he called on Congress to enact a comprehensive plan. The phrase “cap and trade” has become politically poisonous since the death of Obama’s own legislation, in 2010, but there was no mistaking what he meant. Obama demanded a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.”
But the budget released this week makes it clear that Obama’s surprising appeal to Congress was an empty piece of rhetoric. The phrase “climate change” appears twenty-nine times in the new budget, but there is no new plan for Congress to take up in Obama’s otherwise ambitious legislative blueprint. There are some worthy energy initiatives that could achieve modest reductions in emissions, but the budget is silent on what Obama will do to aggressively reduce carbon pollution by the biggest emitters, like power plants and automobiles.
It is not as if Obama doesn’t have the power to act. On many issues the President is at the mercy of Congress. He can’t reform gun laws or the immigration system, or rewrite the tax code, without coöperation from the House and Senate. Climate change is different. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, backed by the force of a Supreme Court ruling, has the authority to reduce carbon pollution through regulation. In 2010, when White House negotiators were trying to pass cap and trade, they presented reluctant senators with a promise (some called it a threat): pass a comprehensive bill to deal with the problem or the E.P.A. would move forward on its own. Three years later, the Administration has still not acted on that ultimatum. And, ominously for those who care about tackling climate change, Obama’s new budget proposes to reduce funding for the E.P.A. by 3.5 per cent compared to the current year.
In his State of the Union, Obama renewed his 2010 threat. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations,” he said, “I will.” Nothing in his new budget follows through on that promise. And if that doesn’t, what will?