Walker's World: Obama's fateful choice

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  April 27, 2009 at 3:43 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, April 27 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's first 100 days have very tidily disposed of most of the overseas resentments that he inherited from the Bush administration.

Cautious gestures and offers to talk have been extended to old enemies like Cuba and Iran. Very little pressure has been exerted on old friends like the Europeans and Japan. China has been given a pass on its manipulation of its currency. The neighbors in the Western Hemisphere have been treated with dignity and respect.

But beyond the two obvious pitfalls -- Afghanistan will soon become Obama's war, and the economic crisis will almost as fast become Obama's recession -- there is a one very large minefield that looms ahead. And it could undo much of the goodwill the new president has generated abroad.

From December 6 to 18, more than 170 countries will meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to develop a new agreement on tackling climate change to replace the Kyoto Protocol that runs out in 2012. This is the big match since it is the last time that the parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change meet at the government level before the protocol needs to be renewed. And since the pace of climate change appears to be accelerating, passions are running high.

Although President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, he never dared put it to the Senate for ratification. As a result, the United States as the world's biggest consumer of energy and second-biggest greenhouse-gas producer has become the villain of the climate crisis.

Obama has pledged to change that, but the challenge he faces is doubly difficult. First, he must decide whether climate change is more important and more urgent than his pledge to reform the U.S. healthcare system. And second, he must decide whether he prefers to offend a crucial group of moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress or his own environmentalists and much of the global community.

The remarkable feature of the Obama presidency so far has been the resolve of its leader to drive full speed ahead with his main reform priorities of healthcare, education and the environment, despite the distraction and the huge cost of the economic crisis. Even though common sense and fiscal prudence would insist that Obama cannot afford everything, he is determined to try.

That is why his budget envisages a $1.7 trillion deficit. To put it in perspective, if the U.S. deficit were a country, it would be the eighth-largest economy in the world. The deficit is bigger than the gross domestic product of Russia, India or Brazil.

But these grandiose ambitions ran up against the reality of the U.S. Congress, whose members control the purse strings. Without their agreement, a U.S. president has very little financial leeway. And while Obama has a reasonable shot at getting some Republicans to accept healthcare reform, he has much less chance of getting them to sign up for cap-and-trade legislation against climate change, and Democrats from oil, gas and coal states are likely to be equally obdurate.

Behind the scenes in Congress, a spirited debate is under way over a process called reconciliation, which is about the complex rules of procedure that can, in certain circumstances, get around the Senate's usual rules on filibuster. The usual rule is that a single senator or group of senators can talk as long as they wish, or filibuster, and exhaust the time available for any piece of legislation, thus killing it. Blocking a filibuster requires 60 of the Senate's 100 votes. But if a bill is agreed to be a financial measure, then only 51 votes are required to stop a filibuster and pass the bill.

Republicans and energy-state Democrats seem close to a deal under which they will allow reconciliation for healthcare reform but not for climate change. That would mean Obama's team going into the Copenhagen negotiations in December as the bad guys, with no legislation -- and not much chance of any -- to back up his promise to be the green president who finally brings the United States into the Kyoto process. And for a lot of committed environmentalists around the world, joining the Kyoto process means joining the human race. If Obama ducks this, his international reputation is going to take some very hard blows.

In short, it looks as if Obama cannot have it all ways, healthcare reform and cap-and-trade; stimulus spending and a bank bailout. Something has to give.

There may be one way out. Now that carbon dioxide has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a gas that can damage human health, it is open to regulation. It would be risky and outrageously provocative to many Democrats as well as Republicans, but Obama could try to tackle climate change through regulating carbon dioxide.

It would almost certainly expose him to a ferocious and well-funded TV ad campaign that charged him with weakening U.S. industry in the middle of a recession, and it could give up so many Democratic seats in the 2010 midterm elections that the Democrats lose their current dominance of Congress.

These are high stakes, likely to define the Obama presidency as much as the Afghan war and the economic crisis.

Trending Stories