Obama Sees Value in "Drill, Baby, Drill"

AP

It may be hard to remember now, but one of the defining disputes of the 2008 presidential campaign -- at least until the economy collapsed -- was offshore drilling.

Republicans, looking to capitalize on Americans' concerns about high gas prices (as well, perhaps, as lingering resentments in their base toward the environmental movement) turned "drill, baby, drill" into a mantra that was lustily chanted by delegates at the party's national convention.

Today, President Obama essentially answered that call with: "You got it."

While his decision to open up the southern Atlantic coastline and some other areas to offshore drilling may not have entirely appeased Republicans -- House Republican Leader John Boehner complained that it did not go far enough -- it nonetheless played like a repudiation of some of the beliefs of some of the most passionate members of his base.

"Today's announcement doesn't make an energy policy," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement following the announcement. "The idea that we are going to solve our energy and economic problems by drilling offshore is not supported by fact."

The president acknowledged such criticism in his comments today, saying that "there will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling." But he insisted that new drilling was a legitimate part of a comprehensive strategy to shift toward a clean energy economy.

In a press briefing following Mr. Obama's statements, White House spokesman Bill Burton made a similar argument, insisting that the president's plan represents a sensible middle ground. The approach, he said, is "a lot less 'drill baby drill' and more 'drill where it's responsible.'"

There appears to be a political calculation at play here: The White House is pushing forward with efforts to pass a climate change bill, and Lindsey Graham, the Senate Republican involved in the bipartisan effort to craft a bill, has stated flatly that he wouldn't support the bill if it "doesn't have off-shore drilling in a meaningful way."

The White House -- which, you'll recall, was willing to jettison the public option from the health care bill in order to get it passed -- seems to once again be displaying its pragmatism with today's announcement. The decision, however, has left even some liberals sympathetic to a pragmatic strategy scratching their head.

The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen noted that the initial White House strategy on energy seemed to involve a quid-pro-quo arrangement in which Republicans got offshore drilling and Democrats got cap-and-trade as part of an energy bill. But cap-and-trade seems to be effectively dead, leaving Benen wondering what the Obama administration is getting for its trouble.

"In February, the president cleared the way for the first new U.S. nuclear power plants in more than 30 years. Today, the president will reportedly open up new opportunities for coastal drilling," he wrote. "In other words, Obama has already effectively given Republicans what they wanted on energy. What is he getting in return?"

What he may be getting is credit for trying to craft legislation in a bipartisan way. The White House was stung during the health care debate by charges that Democrats were working unilaterally; to address that claim before the final push on behalf of the legislation, the president hosted a bipartisan summit designed to convince Americans that he was open to Republican ideas.

But embracing both drilling and nuclear energy, the president, perhaps having learned from his mistakes, has moved forcefully to claim the mantle of bipartisanship in the energy debate. He has also sent a signal that the administration is serious about addressing the issue this year.

"They're putting a stake in the ground that they're going to start moving on climate and energy," Christina Larson, a fellow at the New America foundation, told Hotsheet. "This is certainly a significant way of turning the national conversation from health care to environmental issues."

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