Obama, Take Two

By Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize)

Washington, D.C., 7 November, 2012 — With Barack Obama given another four-year lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the policy and regulatory landscape for the electricity business is largely unchanged. But the roadmap may be somewhat different.

Obama’s reelection represents neither an endorsement nor a repudiation of his policy initiatives on such matters as greenhouse gases, conventional air pollution, renewable energy, or the electric grid. Those issues, dear as they are to the people who make, move and sell electricity, simply were not on the critical political path this election year.

Take Obama’s alleged “war on coal,” which was a prominent feature of the GOP’s energy election agenda. The charge that the Obama administration was determined to kill coal had no discernible effect. Romney won those coal states he was expected to win: West Virginia, Kentucky, and Wyoming, to name three of the largest. Obama won all of the battleground states where coal is mined in significant amounts: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio.

In West Virginia, despite Romney’s wide victory (62.3%), Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin won his race against Republican John Raese by keeping his distance from Obama, as he did in 2010. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin, who ran as a “friend of coal,” won a second term in the state house, and Democratic Rep. Nick Joe Rahall Jr. won another term (his 18th) against a Republican who wrapped himself in the coal war rhetoric.

Then there was Solyndra, the failed solar photovoltaic company that has come to symbolize the Obama administration’s misplaced priority on renewable energy and marginal technologies such as electric vehicles and high-speed rail. Can anyone find any race where the criticism of Obama’s green enthusiasm had an impact?

But when the Obama administration, working with a slightly more Democratic and liberal Senate (the party picked up a net of two seats) and no change in control of the conservative Republican House (a net gain of one for the Democrats), begins working on its second term agenda, there will be familiar themes. Little has changed.

The administration’s regulatory agenda on air emissions – that’s the front line in the phony “war on coal” – is likely to pick up where it left off. The Environmental Protection Agency will move forward with new rules on mercury emissions, coal plant permitting, interstate ozone, carbon dioxide, and the like. Most are likely to be finally resolved in the courts, and the regulatory disputes may outlast Obama’s final term.

The administration’s green agenda is likely to turn to the right, because the engine that powered the policy – stimulus spending and the new authorities it contained – dies at the end of the year. Republicans have shown no appetite for renewing the stimulus programs. The wind industry will mount a major lobbying campaign to restore the production tax credit, and likely will fail. Given the pressures to reduce budget deficits, spending on renewables through the Department of Energy likely will fall.

Taxes and spending will dominate the early agenda, beginning when Congress returns to Washington for a lame duck session before the end of the year. We will get so tired of hearing about the “fiscal cliff” that some may be wishing they could take a header off of it. The parties will wage partisan trench warfare in the House and Senate. It most likely will be long and brutal.

President Obama demonstrated during his reelection campaign that he is a tough street fighter. He ran a race that was gritty, determined, detail-oriented and unswerving. It was also a campaign without a theme. Unlike 2008, when “hope and change” was Obama’s mantra, this year the Obama theme was, to borrow from the Republicans of an earlier time, “stay the course.” America concluded that Obama represented a better course than what the Republicans had to offer.

Mitt Romney is a nice man, conventionally good looking, bland and just this side of elderly. He is the Republican demographic, a fading image like an old photograph found in a dusty box brought down from the top shelf in the hall closet. What did he stand for? That question is as unanswered today as it was when he began his long, stomach-churning and shape-shifting primary slog.

The country remains divided. This is nothing new. Pundits sometimes talk of the putative “Republican lock on the White House,” but that is bogus. In the 67 years since the end of World War II, the U.S. has had 12 presidents. Six have been Democrats (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama); six have been Republicans (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush).