By Paolo von Schirach
June 26, 2013
WASHINGTON – I notice a huge disconnect between the big concerns of the day in America –a slow economy that grew even less than we thought in the first quarter, stubborn unemployment, fears that we may have lost our innovation edge– and President Obama’s major speeches. America worries about deficits, debt, about the forlorn army of the long term unemployed, while Barack Obama used a Berlin platform to make bold but essentially empty and frankly fatuous proposals about nuclear disarmament. He wanted to speak in Berlin on the anniversary of JFK’s famous “Ich bin Ein Berliner” speech. So, a new “historic” speech to follow another? Hardly so. Obama spoke to a smallish crowd and made proposals that stirred very few, were politely discussed (for about five minutes) by experts and a few politicians and then quickly forgotten.
Revamped green agenda
Back on the home front, Obama tried to reassert his green credentials by announcing a barrage of new regulations aimed at curbing US emissions. Here there will be some political traction, because Obama spoke to a significant section of the Democratic base, so that they will not lose heart on the seriousness of this president’s anti-global warming, green agenda.
Still, even if we understand the politics of this speech, are coal fired plants emissions at the top of America’s concerns these days? Again, there is dissonance here between the average Americans’ worries about jobs and unemployment and new Obama-backed policies that as a minimum will threaten the near term viability of the gigantic US coal industry. Whatever the long term environmental benefits of phasing out coal –and they will be real– in the near term closing down coal fired plants will have a cascading negative effect on industrial users that rely on coal produced electricity, utilities, freight rail companies that transport the coal, mining companies and the actual coal miners.
In politics, timing is almost always more important than “being right” on the issues. Is this time of economic uncertainty the best opportunity to launch a new initiative that is most likely to hurt before it brings tangible benefits? Look, we know that it will take years to implement what Obama just announced. And most of his measures will be opposed and fought over in the courts. So, do not expect immediate dramatic consequences. However, there was enough there to create worries at a time in which the country needs hope. (If you were a coal miner in West Virginia, how would you feel after listening to this speech?)
Out of place
And here is my basic point. Besieged by a rather hostile Washington political environment, (the conservative Republicans are certainly not doing America any favors by opposing this President mostly on ideological grounds), Obama took refuge in grandiose but in the end bland pronouncements that make him look out of place. In a world dominated by endless turmoil in Arab countries, with Syria in flames, China about to surpass us economically, Iran and North Korea acting as the usual trouble-makers, Obama launched nuclear disarmament, as if this were a truly pressing matter.
Power of persuasion?
Likewise, while America suffers because of slow economic growth, Obama re-launched anti-emission regulations that are likely to hurt economically before they bring about real benefits. To me this looks like disconnect. Does the President know what is really going on? Or, worse, does he believe that the power of his convictions and his eloquence will move mountains? Does he believe that, because of his Berlin offer, Putin will rush to sit down with him and quickly come to an agreement about strategic nuclear weapons cuts? Does he really believe that with his steady regulatory hand at the helm he will redirect America’s energy consumption from evil carbon to benign renewables? I wonder…