Carol Browner’s departure from the White House removes any illusion of a climate deal in the next ten years

President Barack Obama is briefed by Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 1, 2010. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett is pictured at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This has already been commented on elsewhere, but President Obama’s chief climate change advisor – in fact, one of the only major climate change experts in the White House – is leaving the executive branch:

Carol M. Browner, President Barack Obama’s top energy and environmental adviser, plans to leave the White House in the coming weeks, White House officials said Monday night.

Browner, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator for all eight years under President Bill Clinton, has emerged as one of the most experienced Washington hands in the current West Wing.

Her calm, authoritative television presence during last year’s BP oil disaster made her one of the few government officials whose stature was enhanced in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. But passage of a comprehensive climate change bill, a career-long goal and the primary mission of her office, collapsed last year and seems unlikely for some time to come with the current House Republican majority.

Browner’s departure comes as the West Wing undergoes a heavy makeover, including the arrival of chief of staff William Daley, a rare outsider in the top echelons of the administration. She was among a number of Obama officials in the recent running for a job as deputy chief of staff. But she will instead head for the exits as Obama looks to buff up his business credentials.

It’s understandable that this would occur. With a republican House and a pivot to the “centre” personified by the arrival of William Daley in the Chief of Staff position, unattainable policy goals like climate change legislation will be left by the wayside. There really is no conceivable majority for anything that would even remotely reduce CO2 emissions. The republicans are almost unanimously against any CO2 cap, tax or trading scheme, as are scores of industrial state democrats. Unless there is a paradigm shift in American political opinion (or some kind of major ecological disaster), that won’t change any time soon. Even when the democrats had overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, they couldn’t get anything through. That’s saying something.

It’s a shame and an embarrassment, though. I know that American exceptionalism means the US setting its own rules, marching to the beat of its own drum and whichever other tired clichés one wishes to pull out to illustrate the idea. But really, apart from Australia, which has its own climate-denying far right (Tony Abbott is a sportier, more yobbish Mike Huckabee), there isn’t a single industrialised country that doesn’t understand the need to limit carbon emissions – on the right as much as on the left. Connie Hedegaard, EU Climate Change Commissioner, is a right-wing market liberal from Denmark. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, which no-one could accuse of being left-wing, has been very strong on environmental issues compared even to many socialist governments in Europe. In the United States, on the other hand, only maybe a third of Congress sees any need to deal with carbon emissions – another third theoretically accepts the notion of man-made climate change, while not wishing to sacrifice jobs in industrial states to do anything about the problem, while the remaining 33% of congresspersons and senators deny any human role whatsoever in global warming.

It’s more than a little surreal, and no-one outside America understands it. It’s a combination of religious fundamentalism, know-nothing nativism and political cynicism which means that any global climate deal that attempts to include the United States will inevitably fail – further damaging America’s credibility on the international stage as a result. Certain states, like California, have made major efforts to curb emissions. But unless the most heavily polluting industrial states are forced to play by the same rules – which means federal legislation of some kind – no substantial progress can be made in curbing the USA’s carbon footprint. And while America does nothing, China has no reason to curb its own rapidly-growing CO2 output.

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JFK, 50 years on…

Vanity Fair:

“Washington had never seen anything like it: the tidal wave of glamour, promise, and high spirits that descended on the capital for the 1961 inauguration of the youngest president ever elected, John F. Kennedy — a movable, star-studded bash that couldn’t be stopped even by a massive snowstorm.”

Joe Lieberman as Defense Secretary?

Dana Bash of CNN tells us that John McCain wants his friend Joe Lieberman to replace Robert Gates as SecDef:

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, tells CNN he believes his good friend Joe Lieberman would make a good defense secretary for President Obama, calling him “one of the most informed members of the Senate on national security issues and homeland security issues.”

McCain was answering a question from CNN in a telephone interview about whether the president should consider picking Lieberman for the post, since Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to leave this year.

“You know its funny you mention it,” responded McCain, “I really hope that the president would consider him. I hadn’t thought about it but I sure hope, whatever happens, he will play a major role on national security issues,” said McCain.

I’m no fan of the guy, but it’d be a way to get him out of the spotlight while simultaneously giving President Obama a bit of a hawkish allure – without actually having to do anything hawkish! While the Secretary of Defense is of course one of the president’s top national security advisors, his job is primarily to implement the commander-in-chief’s military and security agenda overseas. Cabinet secretaries don’t publicly disagree with their boss unless they want to lose their jobs. So it’d be a nice little publicity coup, and a chance for Obama to get another experienced voice on national security issues in his government, while not having to make any substantive policy concessions to the right. If Lieberman’s up for it, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

This couldn’t have happened a few months earlier?

A new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post:

Barack Obama has matched his highest job approval rating in more than a year in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, with his ratings for empathy likewise rebounding…

Fifty-four percent now approve of Obama’s job performance, up 5 points from last month and 8 points above his career low in September. And given overwhelming approval of his response to the Tucson attack, Americans by an 18-point margin, 58-40 percent, say Obama “understands the problems of people like you.” That’s up from a mere 2-point split, 50-48 percent, in September.

In another critical shift, albeit still with much room for improvement, 35 percent say Obama’s economic program is making the economy better, while 24 percent say he’s making it worse — the positive result up by 5 points since September, the negative down by 9. Strikingly, the view that Obama’s made the economy worse has eased most broadly in an unexpected quarter: down by 17 points among Republicans.

Full PDF with charts and stats here. While I’m happy that President Obama is finally getting some recognition for his fine presidentin’, it’s astonishing that it took a complete electoral melt-down from the democrats for people to finally wake up and realise that the current inhabitant of the White House is actually a fairly decent, moderate guy – far too moderate for the liking of many people in his own party! Anyway, we democrats can at least take solace in these poll numbers, even if Nancy Pelosi no longer presides over the House.

Then and Now: Can America Heal Itself?

Robert Samuelson writes in the Washington Post that, for all of the talk of tea party madness and hateful rhetoric, and its potential contribution to Gabrielle Giffords’s shooting in Tucson a little over a week ago, things were at least as bad in the 1960s. As he points out:

Precisely the same sort of breakdown occurred in the Sixties, and although the causes were very different, the consequences as measured by public divisiveness and anxieties were as great or greater. “The country was more divided than at any time since 1861, just before the Civil War,” says historian Allen Matusow of Rice University, author of the acclaimed Sixties’ history “The Unraveling of America.”

He’s probably right. In a sense, the 1960s can be viewed as a minor civil war, or at least a societal revolution, not only in terms of racial politics, but also more generally in terms of the reactionary forces of yesteryear doing whatever was in their power to stymie the march of the forces of societal progress. For Christ’s sake, segregation was still the law of the land in vast swathes of the South! Even New York still had anti-sodomy laws! George Wallace, the king of racial hatred, won five states, 46 electoral votes and 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 presidential election! Open discrimination against women in the workplace was legal, tolerated and open!

Looking at then and now, we can find cause for triumph. On this, Martin Luther King Day 2011, while much still has to be done to further the cause of minority, women’s and gay rights, an African-American is now sitting in the White House, having narrowly beaten a female candidate. LGBT Americans can now openly serve in the military. The South now boasts two Indian-American governors (both Republican). There is much for which we can be thankful.

The horrific shooting in Arizona cannot be forgotten. A Congressman was shot through the head, and still lies in a serious condition in hospital, despite remarkable progress. Six people lost their lives, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge. Yet none of this compares to the deaths of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – all in the space of less than five years, from November 1963 (JFK) to June 1968 (RFK).

The country has moved on from the ’60s. This does not mean, however, that we can dismiss the events of the past weeks, months and couple of years. While Gabrielle Giffords will probably pull through, there is a climate of hatred in America that cannot be ignored – and it is directed mainly at the current president, and all that he represents and stands for. Consider this, from the North Iowa Tea Party:

Or this, from Sarah Palin:

Or any of the fearful conspiracy-theory nonsense about President Obama’s socialist, Muslim, communist, marxist, fascist, nazi, black supremacist, Chicago thug agenda, and the people who support it, like Gabrielle Giffords (who, by-the-by, was a moderate, pro-gun democrat from a red state).

There’s a great video of Reverend Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, talking about America’s chickens coming home to roost. He, of course, was talking about America getting its comeuppance for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He could just as easily have been talking about the right wing’s cynical manipulation of the natural paranoia that lurks in the hearts of so many Americans, and its inevitable, bloody, tragic consequences.

For two years, talk radio hacks like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News hate-mongers like Glenn Beck have tried everything in their power to convince Americans that their current head of state lacks all legitimacy, and is actually working to destroy the very country in which he was born and raised. Their violent rhetoric, and their supporters have responded by brandishing guns at political rallies. Then, when a sitting member of Congress is gunned down in broad daylight, they express shock and horror that anyone would even think that their words could have pushed an already insane, paranoid individual to pull the trigger.

I am not accusing Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh of wanting a congresswoman dead. What I am saying, however, is that if we want to avoid seeing another generation of young idealistic leaders gunned down by nuts, the right must realise that violent words beget violent deeds. While we live in a more tolerant society than ever before, we seem more politically divided than ever before, and less willing and able to understand and speak to one another. While we watch the same television and read the same magazines, we no longer speak the same language.

This does not mean that we cannot disagree. Respectful disagreement is the foundation of political debate. Part of what I cherish in a friend – and I believe that I am not alone in this – is the ability to spar over politics and ideology while still enjoying one another’s company. But what if we were a little more like the West Wing – where disagreement does not mean demagoguery and dishonesty – instead of the West Bank, where we lob bombs at one another?

Perhaps the situation that I am describing is completely unrealistic. Perhaps it is naïve. Manipulating the people is always easier and certainly more effective in the short term than being honest with them. I simply fear that without a realisation of the consequences of our words and acts, the coming decade will be as divisive and bloody as that of my parents’ childhoods. And maybe Martin Luther King Day is the one moment where we can actually come together and say no to hatred and division.

Probably not, though.