The Strategy Behind Obama's Drilling Announcement

Obama's offshore-drilling announcement this morning has left many environmentalists with their knickers in a knot. For them it's a betrayal by an administration from whom they'd expected more. A year ago it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume the Obama White House would aggressively pursue legislation that curbs America's greenhouse-gas emissions. Now, they're letting big oil companies drill for more fossil fuels. It's appears like a strategy designed to get more Republicans on board with climate-change legislation. But GOPers aren't exactly playing ball right now. Obama's recent nuclear announcement didn't win him any new conservative buddies.

Ezra Klein wonders if there's a brilliant political strategy lurking behind the announcement. But if there is, he writes, the administration isn't saying a peep about it. I think that's because the strategy isn't about getting members of Congress to sign on to a bill. It's about shifting the discourse around the bill entirely.

In order to neutralize conservative opposition to capping emissions, Democrats need to make energy security the centerpiece of the climate debate. There are few things Americans prize more than a safe homeland, including clean air. But, the argument goes, as long as we're dependent on oil from hostile nations, we're making ourselves vulnerable. In this context, promoting domestic energy production is enormously popular. If the administration can frame all of its moves toward a greener economy in terms of security, then they'll have a very popular bill on their hands. Energy security is something that even climate-change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) can get behind.

Today's drilling announcement is the opening bid in a strategy to shift the climate-change debate away from contentious claims about the efficacy of cap-and-trade systems and toward a patriotic discourse that momentarily shifts green concerns to the side. That doesn't mean that environmental worries aren't profound motivators for the White House. They clearly are. But they aren't winning a public in which, almost unbelievably, skepticism about global warming is on the rise. What this is about is finding a way to make the necessary energy changes more palatable to a broad public. With this announcement, the White House can claim some critical credibility on energy security before moving on to measures, such as capping emissions of big electric utilities, which are closer to their hearts. Today is all about messaging.

Is President Obama keeping his campaign promises? Explore them here. And take a look at the world's worst man-made environmental disasters in photos, here.