Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama Steps Up

My post of a couple days ago notwithstanding, I'm generally an optimistic sort of fellow. I'm not delusional about it, and I think I'm capable of a healthy skepticism when it's a necessity. Still, I'm a believer in the idea of American greatness.

So I was thrilled to read the speech Obama gave on energy policy today at Michigan State University. While he didn't take my suggestion of sticking Tom Izzo on a hamster wheel and having him power Lansing during Spartan home games, Obama still did well this afternoon.

The aspects of the speech that have been making all the ledes are Obama's call to release 70 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the indication that he's willing to compromise on offshore drilling. I get why that's the case; those are policy shifts, and policy shifts are always interesting. (For a given definition of "interesting.")

I'm fairly skeptical of the SPR element, and in a perfect world offshore drilling wouldn't even be discussed as a serious solution to any problem. But Obama's position on drilling makes sense if you consider it within the context of his job as a legislator. Here's his statement:

Last week, Washington finally made some progress on this. A group of Democrat and Republican Senators sat down and came up with a compromise on energy that includes many of the proposals I’ve worked on as a Senator and many of the steps I’ve been calling for on this campaign. It’s a plan that would invest in renewable fuels and batteries for fuel-efficient cars, help automakers re-tool, and make a real investment in renewable sources of energy.

Like all compromises, this one has its drawbacks. It includes a limited amount of new offshore drilling, and while I still don’t believe that’s a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it’s necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan. I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good – particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Obama is willing to compromise and accept something he doesn't like as part of a greater plan he does like. But look at what's he not doing here: he's not lying to the audience. He's not claiming that offshore drilling will solve their short term problems or America's larger issues. He is, instead, speaking as a senator who wants the best bill he can get but who isn't willing to torpedo a solid plan because it doesn't give him everything.

But while Obama spoke about expanding domestic oil production, most of the speech was a call for energy independence and a breaking of the chains that tie America to an oil-based economy.

I've written variations on this sentence before, but it's worth saying again this time: I'm not an expert on energy policy or alternative fuels. Obama called for the "end of the age of oil in our time." He wants to eliminate the country's need to import oil from Venezuela and the Middle East, and he wants to do it in 10 years.

I don't know if that's particularly plausible. It certainly sounds ambitious to my thoroughly amateur ears. I suspect it will be hard to pay for $150 billion Obama wants to invest over the next ten years to "build a new energy economy." I do think I know that $150 billion, in this arena, is a more of a good start than a complete investment.

He wants one million "150 mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrids on our roads within six years." He wants to raise fuel mileage standards four percent every year. He wants to provide four billion dollars in loans to help Ford and GM "re-tool their factories and build these cars."

That's far from a comprehensive list. In short, Obama wants a lot of things. Some of them are doable. Some of them are probably very not doable. The legitimate experts and the guys who like to scream at television cameras will hash that out.

But me, I'm pleased to see Obama set such lofty goals. I believe in a government that's ambitious and idealistic and that tries to achieve the extraordinary, even with the foreknowledge that it might well fail. Obama's calling for great steps to address a great problem. He's calling on the American government and the American people to actually try to accomplish something extraordinary. That's as important as the particular details. This speech offers a window into Obama's governing philosophy, and I rather like the view.

I like that he's set a foolhardy goal of energy independence within 10 years. It's no fun hurdling bars that are set artificially low. Conversely, it's not shameful to fall short when the bar is set one notch too high.

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