In that question is the new president’s greatest political danger. He’s about to oversee the spending of an unthinkable $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars ($350 billion in the second half of the bank bailout, and at least $700 million in the stimulus package.) Even if growth returns as expected in the second half of 2009, voters in 2010 and beyond will be wondering, and Republicans will be asking: “Where did it go? What did it buy? What do we have to show for it?”
My first job was as a lifeguard in Niles, Ohio’s Waddell Pool, a WPA project that still serves that city. I was a frequent visitor to Warren, Ohio’s Carnegie Library, another long-lasting monument to expenditures made on the public’s behalf, and every college and university in America is home to buildings bearing names, a vast pile of evidence that if you want to remembered –even if only for a short while– build something.
If President Obama oversees the payout of more than a trillion bucks and cannot point to anything but statistics to show for it in two years, he’ll have a political nightmare on his hands, and he’ll deserve it. The enormous size of the stimulus is a never-before-seen-in-American-history splurge, and the Democrats thus far show no sign of treating it as other than a vast payout to their friends.
If President Obama was to demand the funding for and enabling legislation to kick start the construction of the dozens of new nuclear power plants this country needs, as well as the wind turbines envisioned by T. Boone Pickens and the grid expansion everyone knows is necessary, not only would he be creating thousands and thousands of great jobs, he’d be powering the U.S. up for a second American century. The appropriation is only the first step. He’d need not a car czar, but a power czar, tasked with delivering the plants on a schedule and authorized to blow through logjams. To get such a massive and necessary expansion of our power supply underway, he’d also have to have “notwithstanding any other law” language in the appropriations bill, or every one of the new plants would be quickly swamped in the sorts of environmental challenges that bedevil every major infrastructure project in the county. (Here’s just one example —a proposed 88 mile natural gas pipeline from Baltimore to PA, threatened by the Indiana bat and the bog turtle. Those of us who practice law in the world of endangered species and wetlands know this is the rule for big projects, not the exception.)
The good news is that the spending bill that looms is so huge that all but the most ardent environmentalist can be bought off with a set aside of billions for habitat acquisition for any threatened or endangered species impacted by the power project. The unions would cheer; environmentalists would cheer, conservatives who know that energy equals freedom would cheer. Well before he faced re-election, President Obama could point to the massive outline of the next generation’s power supply, a signal achievement with extraordinary multiplier benefits to the economy and national security.
The new president and the Democratic leadership are talking about “green power” and classroom do-overs, the repair of bridges and tax credits for car and home buying. Each of these are fine things, but together they add up to nothing that will be remembered two years from now, and more importantly, to a lost opportunity to have done a great thing.
The Senate GOP should use what leverage that it has to at least force votes on provisions of the stimulus bill that would revitalize the nuclear power industry and quickly build a new generation of nuclear power plants. If President Obama embraces the plan, he’ll reap the political benefit, but the country’s energy security will be greatly enhanced. Hope that he does.