President-elect Barack Obama is proving to be remarkably pragmatic and centrist as he tackles the global economic crisis. Big tests are yet to come on energy, however.
Will Mr. Obama tilt toward fossil-phobic environmentalists who heavily influence the Democratic Party, or toward do-it-all pragmatists like his apparent choice for White House national security adviser, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones?
Mr. Jones’ present job is chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which contends that offshore oil drilling, clean coal technology and nuclear power must be part of America’s energy policy.
On Oct. 20, Mr. Jones made it clear at a panel discussion I was part of that he regards energy policy as “an international security issue of the highest order,” which suggests he will make it part of his portfolio at the National Security Council.
He released a step-by-step “transition plan” for energy that included “aggressively” promoting energy efficiency and alternative fuel research, but also domestic oil and gas exploration and elimination of restrictions against nuclear power plants, new electric grids, and oil and gas pipelines.
Such ideas are anathema to many Democratic “greens” - including leaders in Congress - who want to close down the carbon economy and base the country’s energy future strictly on renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal power, plus conservation.
In particular, Jones has aroused the ire of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, for backing disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The power of the greens was also demonstrated by the toppling of Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, the auto industry’s longtime protector, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
His replacement, Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, is a “green,” and his coup was backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
After behaving like a leftish liberal for much of his political career - and becoming the darling of the left during the presidential campaign - Mr. Obama so far is fulfilling his self-assessment that he’s a pragmatist, willing to try “whatever works.”
His economic appointments - Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers in the White House, Christina Romer at the Council of Economic Advisers and Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget - have sent reassuring signals to terrified financial markets.
And his heavily leaked selections for foreign policy posts - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, Mr. Jones at the NSC and possibly current Defense Secretary Robert Gates - definitely lean toward the “realist” or “national interest” school of foreign policy, not the “liberal internationalist.”
On policy, moreover, Mr. Obama has shown reassuring resilience, utterly abandoning his previous intention to follow the Franklin D. Roosevelt model of crisis governing.
FDR famously refused to involve himself in policymaking to deal with the Great Depression from November 1932 until his Inauguration in March 1933 and refused to have any contact with outgoing President Herbert Hoover’s administration. At his initial press conference as president-elect on Nov. 7, Mr. Obama repeated the mantra that “the country has only one president at a time.” Crashing financial markets and the impending “Great Recession” - or worse - changed his attitude.