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Drill, Barry, Drill

What to make of the president’s decision yesterday to permit offshore drilling? A coldly rational decision that will reduce our dependency on foreign oil from politically unstable parts of the globe? A sell-out of his liberal base? A shrewd bit of wedge politics? A political bouquet to–or electoral boxing in of–a certain former Alaska governor?

Short answer: Probably a bit of all of the above. (Although on the last, it should be noted that Alaska’s Bristol Bay was specifically cited by the administration as an area to be protected from drilling.)

For starters, let’s get this out of the way: Offshore drilling polls pretty darn well. A Rasmussen poll from late December pegs general support at 68 percent nationally–although they note that many Americans, demonstrating their federalist sympathies, would support allowing individual states to exert veto power over drilling off their shores. The number was almost identical a year earlier in autumn 2008. Those from states along the eastern seaboard are less enthusiastic, but a slight plurality is still supportive. Hell, even a slight majority of Californians give drilling the green light.

Here’s the key excerpt from Obama’s remarks yesterday morning at Andrews Air Force Base announcing the policy as part of a new comprehensive energy plan. After talking about energy-saving initiatives and demand, he transitioned to the issue of supply:

“But we have to do more. We need to make continued investments in clean coal technologies and advanced biofuels. A few weeks ago, I announced loan guarantees to break ground on America’s first new nuclear facility in three decades, a project that will create thousands of jobs. And in the short term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we’ve still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines.

This is not a decision that I’ve made lightly. It’s one that Ken [Salazar] and I — as well as Carol Browner, my energy advisor, and others in my administration — looked at closely for more than a year. But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.”

In many ways, this is a classic Obama split-the-difference-with-a-tilt-to-the-left play straight from his Audacity of Hope playbook. Trying to preempt the kind of obstruction he experienced with healthcare reform as energy reform moves forward, the emphasis on drilling is an opening bid to win over some Republicans. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Anne Kornblut correctly assess the move this morning as follows: “Some conservative critics questioned whether the policy will have any real impact on energy production, while liberals decried the risks to the environment. But the White House’s key audience — undecided senators who will determine whether a climate bill succeeds on Capitol Hill this year — suggested that the move had helped revive the legislation’s prospects.”

Now, my initial reflex is, Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t the president learn from the drawn-out healthcare fight that the extended hand simply gets bitten, and that any attempts to cobble together anything beyond a Democrats-plus-maybe-one-Maine-senator “bipartisan” coalition is mostly a waste of his and our time? Yes and no.

Yes, because in the end, of course, it’s gonna take mostly Democratic votes to pass any major energy bill. But no, because, well, energy is just not politically the same as health care. Let me explain what I mean.

In the period after Obama’s win and before his first 100 days were over, one of the predictions I made in several public presentations–and got completely wrong–was that Obama would have to do energy before healthcare. My reasoning was akin to what we saw with George W. Bush tackling education early in his first term: You win on a stolen issue from the other party’s traditional agenda. And, generally speaking, energy is more of a Republican issue, or certainly more Republican of an issue than healthcare. In other words, you win an away game to build confidence and momentum (political capital) to then win a much tougher home game. I’m mixing my metaphors here, but you get the point. And there’s an obvious historic analog here with Bill Clinton and welfare reform, which many later concluded was a victory he could have used to then go for healthcare reform second, instead of the failed order in which he tackled them. (We’ll never know.)

If offshore drilling–along with nuclear power investments, which should surprise nobody given Obama’s background and Illinois roots, not to mention his clear if under-emphasized signals during the campaign about his support for nuclear–can win some converts, it’s good politics; the poll numbers confirm that. Whether that politics is enough to win GOP converts, we’ll see. As to whether it’s good policy, well, I’ll leave it to the readers to argue about below.