Obama’s Energy Straddle

DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics

This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times.

Like every president seeking re-election, Barack Obama walks the fine line every day between the discordant goals of motivating his party’s strongest loyalists and reaching out to swing voters for their support. A few weeks ago, that pathway took him to a tiny town in Oklahoma, where, caught between the anti-drilling demands of the environmental community and the thirst for more affordable gasoline from unions, business owners and drivers, the president announced his support for building half of an oil pipeline.

The economic impact of rising energy prices in itself is considerable, but the psychological toll on voters is just as significant, as tens of millions of motorists are reminded by large signs on almost every street corner of the financial pain of filling their gas tanks. Obama and his political lieutenants are acutely aware that this growing frustration has the potential to complicate an election year that otherwise seems to be shifting in the incumbent’s favor.

As a result, Obama has been hitting the energy issue hard in recent weeks, at least as hard as a candidate can hit when forced to navigate between two almost mutually exclusive political priorities. The result is a president who talks forcefully of the benefits of wind and solar power while also boasting about the amount of oil the nation produces under his leadership.

There are times when this gets slightly uncomfortable. Obama recently called for increased exploration along the Atlantic Coast but stopped short of calling for expanded drilling in that region. This is the energy policy equivalent of admitting to an experiment with marijuana but not inhaling.

Where the issue becomes more tangible and therefore trickier for Obama is when the multiple choices become binary. The debate over the proposed XL Keystone Pipeline that would transport Canadian oil through the nation’s heartland to the Gulf of Mexico crystallizes the choices involved and forces a shades-of-gray conversation into starker hues of black and white.

Obama recognizes that the devoted environmentalists who represent a critical portion of the Democratic party base need some motivation to turn out for him in the fall. But he also understands that centrist voters who support him on a range of other domestic and foreign policy matters could be lured away by a Republican opponent who either promises relief at the gas pump or who can lay blame at the White House doorstep for those higher prices. Even more complicated is the role of organized labor, which has poured immense amounts of support into Obama’s re-election but also prioritizes the job-creation potential of the pipeline.

The result of these competing political and policy pressures brought Obama to Ripley, Okla., where he tried to satisfy the needs of these various audiences without alienating any of them. First, the president endorsed the southern portion of the Keystone project in order to relieve the glut of domestically drilled oil that is now unable to make it to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico in a timely manner. This had the effect of irritating his environmental allies but failed to mollify the project’s advocates, who pointed out that the review process that the president called for was already underway.

He then reiterated the administration’s antipathy toward the northern section of the pipeline, which would allow Canadian-drilled oil to be transported into this country. This provided some comfort to drilling opponents, but infuriated both the pro-oil forces and the Canadian government. The most likely outcome is that Canada will still build a pipeline, but rather one that goes westward to the Pacific Ocean north of the United States border and then ships Canadian oil to China instead of into this country.

Even in deep-blue California, where Obama wins hypothetical general election match ups against the Republican candidates by margins approaching voice vote, this is an issue that points to potential difficulties for the president’s re-election campaign. Californians who swooned for Obama in 2008, and who seem poised for a re-swoon this fall, told a recent USC Dornsife/LA Times statewide poll that they were dissatisfied with the president’s handling of the issue of the cost of gasoline by a 29-62 margin. California’s unemployment rate remains around 11 percent, but the state’s residents still give Obama positive marks on his work on job creation, the economy and taxes. They approve of his work on health care and by even larger margins on women’s health issues. But highway-dependent West Coasters, even while they advocate for broader use of solar, wind and other alternative energies, don’t like $4 per gallon gasoline and they will like paying $5 per gallon even less.

Obama won’t actually lose California in November, of course. Gas prices would have to hit $10 a gallon for Mitt Romney to win the state this fall. And the same poll shows that voters blame oil companies, rather than either the president or Congress, for those high prices. However, the dissatisfaction that emanates from even a heavily Democratic patch of electoral turf such as California carries much more significant consequences in Ohio, Florida and other swing states. For the time being, Obama is gambling that directing popular anger toward the oil companies — a convenient villain if there ever was one — will allow him to keep the price of gasoline from becoming a roadblock for his campaign.

But if gas prices keep rising and voter unhappiness continues to build, look for the administration to find a way to accelerate the review process that would allow the northern leg of Keystone to move forward more quickly. Obama has been careful not to come out in absolute opposition to the pipeline, but only to call for a more meticulous examination of its possible environmental impact. A more closely competitive election than what is now expected, though, could easily lead the president to decide that his administration’s review has been quite thorough enough and that the time for additional drilling has arrived.

An energy strategy that Obama now refers to as an “all of the above” approach is unlikely to turn into a “drill, baby drill” refrain between now and November. But maintaining a balance between dissatisfied but docile environmentalists on one hand and drivers whose unhappiness stops just short of violence on the other will be a key to his re-election. If his poll margins begin to narrow, a somewhat longer pipeline than the one he has already endorsed could become a very tempting insurance policy.

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