Obama: Scary detachment from reality

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, June 26, 2013

As I sat down to prepare my column for this week, I scanned some of the major news headlines and saw that President Obama was set to deliver a “major” speech at 1 p.m. Eastern today (Tuesday). Thinking the speech might give Americans a bit of an update on the administration’s manhunt for Edward Snowden or that the speech might discuss recent market volatility on Wall Street, I clicked on the link. Lo and behold, the most pressing concern for President Obama at this moment in time is climate change! Really?!

In one click, the president’s complete and, in the words of George Will, “scary detachment from reality” was made clear to me. Here we are just months into President Obama’s second term. The economy does not look much better than it did through much of his first term—unemployment rates are high; growth has remained slow; and average household incomes have been stagnant for a long time. A number of troubling scandals have surfaced recently, and the administration’s public reaction to the Snowden scandal has been rather hushed, even though many in the press are noting that their desire to prosecute him under the 1917 Spy Act is outrageous.

In these important areas of national interest, President Obama has barely spoken, and his press conferences have become more and more infrequent. But, just to make sure we all know he’s still doing his job, there was a silver-tongued climate change speech on his calendar this afternoon—climate change being what he described in Berlin as “the global threat of our time”—ready for a sympathetic Georgetown University crowd.

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The speech was filled with ambitious second term goals for emission reductions, regulation of coal fired energy, and promises that he won’t support the Keystone XL Pipeline project unless it’s carbon neutral. The talk was filled with a lot of fluff that catered to his environmental base of supporters, but it’s poorly informed policies that, as Will suggests, reflect how out of step President Obama is with our country and with the times.

Coal fired energy, for example, remains one of the cheapest forms of energy production the world has ever seen. Over time, it has also become a cleaner energy source—not so much because of environmental regulation, but, rather, because it doesn’t pay for firms to be grossly inefficient producers of energy. Cheap coal saves Americans billions of dollars annually, and the jobs and economic impact related to coal are huge. To draw a line in the sand in favor of stricter coal regulation, which means many Americans will lose their jobs and others will pay higher energy prices, for the sake of the environment sure doesn’t make a lot of sense at a time of high unemployment and slow growth.

His position on the Keystone XL Pipeline is similarly detached. Prior to the 2012 election, he used processes and a number of legal excuses to delay making a decision on permitting the project. He was afraid to make a decision. Now that he has secured a second term, he has come out and offered a path for the Keystone XL Pipeline, but it’s a path with absurdly high hurdles. As Tom Pyle of the American Energy Alliance put it late this afternoon, “Make no mistake, the President has killed the Keystone XL pipeline today.” Again, at a time and in a world where Americans have far greater concerns than the environment, the president is showing his complete detachment from the rest of us.

We’ve seen detached presidents in office before. George H.W. Bush is said to have not known what checkout scanners were near the end of his presidency. Bill Clinton was, um, pretty detached when committing impeachable offenses when in office. And, Reagan’s mind was slipping a bit late in his presidency.

But, the detachment with Obama is different in degree and kind: When he’s on the run politically, which is evident in his slipping poll numbers and the many recent scandals, he doubles down and focuses on issues that are particularly harmful to the rest of us. These appeal to his base and give him a boost of confidence, but they’re tremendously harmful in the long-term and leave many of us in economics wondering about how much harm he could end up doing to the economy between now and 2016.

Scott Beaulier is Chair of the Economics and Finance Division and Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. Email Scott at sbeaulier@troy.edu. Follow the Johnson Center on Facebook and Twitter (@Johnson_Center)