Obama has just signed into law the "Transition Social Security to the General Fund" bill, smartly branded as the "Here's $10" Payroll Tax Holiday. Way to go, Team Still Smarter Than You — that extra gift at the top end is completely invisible to me.
This is being positioned as a Big Win for the Blues (after all, who can't use $10 a week?) and a scathing defeat for the Reds. What the Reds (House Republicans) got in return was a mandated accelerated decision for the Keystone Sludge Oil Pipeline, something progressives and environmentalists fought hard against all last year.
The Red team goal was to put Obama in a box well within sight of his base; force his hand, in other words, since Obama clearly wants that pipeline built (as do the oil-soaked R's), but can't appear to want it until after the election. So goes the thinking, anyway.
Well, not so fast. According to Jeff Goodell writing in Rolling Stone, Obama has a way out of that box. The article is called "Keystone Pipeline Endgame: Three Scenarios". (Because the article was written before Obama signed the bill into law, only the last two are operative.)
Scenario Two is to sign the bill and renege, blow off the requirement. Here's Scenario Three (my emphasis and paragraphing to accommodate our columns):
3. Obama could sign the legislation and then find a way to allow the pipeline to get built, perhaps along a slightly different route. This scenario, which would require some fancy footwork from the White House, was laid out for me last night in an off-the-record conversation with a top environmentalist.It will be interesting to watch this play out. The strategy is perfectly designed to confuse opposition, perfectly cynical, and perfectly soulless, in that "Once I was good, so of course I still am" kind of way.
It goes something like this: Everything that happens in Washington right now is about the upcoming election. To win, Obama needs to keep his base happy; two key constituents are environmentalists and labor. Obama gave enviros a big win with the initial decision to delay the pipeline last month. But he gave them an even bigger win this week when he issued the first-ever rules to control toxic air pollution, including mercury from coal plants.
This was a huge deal, a move that will save tens of thousands of lives every year and likely lead to the shut-down of dozens of old coal plants. By virtually any measure (including reduced carbon pollution), the impacts of this rule far outweigh those of denying the pipeline.
Politically, this puts Obama (and his political team) in a sweet spot. He can now go to enviros and say: I gave you mercury regulations, now I'm going to OK the pipeline in order to make my friends in the labor unions happy and get Big Oil off my back.
In this scenario, he wins with enviros, he wins with labor, and he gets to point to the pipeline as a big infrastructure project that is creating jobs and keeping Americans working (although the number of jobs the pipeline will actually create has been wildly inflated).
He keeps Big Oil from hammering him in the election, and – best of all – he doesn't look captive to enviros. The risk, of course, is that he will have to back-track on the administration's much-praised decision to stall the pipeline. And hard-core anti-pipeline activists are likely to kick up a ... storm.
But most enviros will buy the argument that the mercury regulations were a much bigger deal than the pipeline, and thus criticism of the president will likely be muted. All in all, it could be a smart political play. That is, if your goal is to win re-election, rather than to actually break America's addiction to oil.
Will Obama play that card? We've got until February (two months from bill-signing) to find out.