This sounds familiar. In an effort to win Republican support for one of his top priorities, President Obama reaches out with a compromise. But it happens to be a compromise that runs counter to his own larger objectives. Plus, he seems to be giving up a bargaining chip a lot earlier than he has to.

That seems to be the case with offshore oil drilling, which Obama announced last week he plans to allow off the Southeast’s Atlantic seaboard, in part of the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northern coast.

Ending a longstanding moratorium on exploration and drilling in those areas is being viewed in Washington as an olive branch to oil companies and moderate members of the Senate. He may need their support in passing legislation to combat climate change.

But it’s difficult to see how expanding access to a fuel that emits greenhouse gases will reduce the actual emission of greenhouse gases. And — unless a backroom deal already has been made — it’s difficult to see how giving up a chip before the climate legislation passes actually strengthens Obama’s bargaining position. (The climate bill is likely to end up codifying administration policy on the moratorium.)

Republicans and the right-wing media greeted the gesture as they have most others from Obama — with more contempt than conciliation. They argue Obama should have moved further in their direction. And their backing of a climate bill remains unlikely.

The drilling announcement doesn’t even seem to be moving Democratic positions on the climate bill — which has been languishing in the Senate since last fall — in the right direction: According to the Miami Herald, 10 Democrats who had been expected to support climate change legislation, sent a letter to the bill’s sponsors a few days before Obama’s announcement saying that they wouldn’t support a version that opened up coastal states to too much drilling. Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who already opposed the climate bill, said he still plans too oppose it — even though he likes Obama’s proposal to allow drilling in the Arctic.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. A little more than a year ago, the president took a similar route with his stimulus plan. He trimmed it to $787 billion and dedicated more than a third of that to tax cuts — even though many good economists figured that amount was too little and that tax cuts were too indirect to spur a robust recovery.

By making too many compromises before the stimulus went to Congress, the White House gave up negotiating room before even sitting down at the table. In the end, the watered-down package got all of three votes from Republican senators — one of whom is now a Democrat. And although the stimulus helped end the recession, it wasn’t enough to cut unemployment right away. So Obama’s Democratic allies are stuck on the congressional campaign trail trying to defend a jobless recovery.

We also saw this happen with the health care debate. From the start, it was a moderate, market-based plan — closer to legislation President Richard Nixon proposed in the 1970s than to “socialized medicine.” Then, a handful of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats stalled the bill in the Senate, ostensibly seeking more compromise. But their demands kept changing.

Health reform finally did pass when Obama decided to ram it through without grasping for Republican support that would never come anyway.

Imperfect as the bill was, Obama managed to achieve the nation’s most significant social reform in nearly a half a century. And, while Republicans still want to make reform a political liability for Democrats, it’s certainly not the millstone it would have been had the president put so much effort into it and come away with nothing.

The lesson for our young president seems obvious: All those sincere efforts at fairness and openness don’t mean squat if you fail to bring about the change that people actually care about. So deal with Washington’s partisan atmosphere from a position of strength, particularly when you’re in the majority. And don’t forget that people outside Washington care about results more than process.

But Obama’s decision last week to throw a bone to the oil industry and the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd makes me wonder whether he’s learned that lesson.

The climate bill that the House passed last fall and sent to the Senate amounts to a moderate attempt to address the problem. It falls well short of the greenhouse gas reductions scientists say are necessary to ward off disaster. But it would be a big step in the right direction.

In the Senate, however, compromise is the name of the game — ad nauseum. Even before Obama announced his offshore drilling plans, environmentalists were worried that concessions to “clean coal,” nuclear power — not to mention the idea that the federal government could pre-empt tougher state climate laws — were all threatening to compromise most of what was good in the bill.

Some speculate that there’s an electoral argument for ending the offshore moratorium. In other words, it’s not about a congressional vote; it’s about taking a popular stand to help Democratic candidates win in November. White House aides insist that there’s no politics at all in the decision — that it’s simply the right thing to do; they note that Obama supported some offshore drilling on the campaign trail.

If that’s the case, then it’s worth arguing the merits. Obama described his proposed lifting of the moratorium as “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

I get the foreign oil part. But how does one reduce one’s overall dependence on fossil fuels by making more fossil fuels available? At what point does investment in an infrastructure that extracts oil out of the ground become a larger, long-term commitment to more and more oil?

Senate sponsors haven't actually hammered out their climate bill yet. But, to be fair, it's likely to to do a lot more than offer giveaways to a bunch of polluting special interests. It also features grants and incentives for clean energy and efficiency, as well as the necessary evil of cap-and-trade — a scheme designed to get polluters to pay for at least a portion of the costs they foist on the rest of us. You can even argue that clean coal and nuclear power belong in the bill because they’re part of a strategy to fight climate change. But there’s no such argument in favor of “Drill, baby, drill.”

But here’s the thing that really doesn’t make sense to me: The debate over climate change legislation contains another dynamic that strengthens the hand of those who want us to take action. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its plan to regulate greenhouse gases. Effectively, it’s a threat to greenhouse polluters, and to the senators who see their job as protecting those polluters: Allow strong legislation — complete with positive incentives and market-based system — to pass, or you’ll be saddled to a set of command-and-control regulations that you really hate to govern greenhouse emissions.

That threat to polluting industries is an ace in the hole for senators who actually do want effective climate action. When the status quo works in favor of environmentalists, why should pro-environment senators vote for a plan that compromises away so many of the climate bill’s potential gains?


A note to our readers: Until four weeks ago, this column was called Media Mayhem and was limited to the intersection between the environment and the media. But last month I cajoled, begged and bribed my editor to allow me to write further afield. It's now called Planet Pundit, which should clue you into the fact the subject is rather broad. I plan to focus on environmental politics and trends. I'd love your feedback and ideas. Please don't hesitate to write me at or post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Political Pundit column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at

Planet Pundit: A bridge or a crutch?
Obama’s overture to offshore oil wells may mean that he didn’t take away the right lessons from the health-care debate.