President Obama’s State of the Union: More Change than First Appears

From his Inaugural Speech Last January, to an address to a joint session of Congress 11 months ago, to the State of the Union this last week, President Obama has talked about energy. In three of his four most prominent speeches, the President has called for major energy infrastructure reform to strengthen the American economy and increase our global competitiveness.

However, the case for energy reform in earlier speeches was not as narrow as it was on Wednesday night. In his Inaugural address, the first mention of energy was not even tied to the economy; he said, “each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” A month later, the President explained that “… to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.”  In both these speeches, energy is not just an economic concern. It is also a national security issue, and a matter of environmental concern.

However, in the State of the Union, the connection between energy and the economy was stronger than ever. The President discussed energy at two points in the speech on Wednesday night: it appeared first in the section outlining the Jobs Bill, and shortly thereafter in the section on “fixing the problems that are hampering our [economic] growth.” National security and environmental justifications for reform were gone. At one point, the President even acknowledges that environmental concern is now beside the point: “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future — because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

The absence of the national security argument fit with the domestic policy-focus on the State of the Union address. However, the change in the energy sections of the speeches was not just rhetorical – there are also several major difference between the policies the President proposed last February and on Wednesday night.

In his February speech, which was filled with details about his budget and other specific policy goals for the coming year, the President asked Congress “to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.”

In contrast, in the State of the Union, the President mentioned not only renewable energy sources and clean coal, but also building “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country… [and] making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.” As opposed to mentioning cap-and-trade, the President asks Congress to send him “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.” This language gives Congress far less direction, and much more leeway, in passing an energy bill.

These addresses are not the work of a week; the State of the Union is written over the course of months and early drafts are reviewed by dozens of individuals throughout the government. The differences in language from year to year may appear slight, but the consequences can be tremendous. The energy bill the President described this last week most likely does not include cap-and-trade, includes heavy investment in nuclear power and considers expanding off-shore drilling. This new bill will be easier to pass through Congress, but is also a substantially different vision for expanding our domestic energy capacity. In the coming years, we will not only see how this vision continues to change, but how it becomes realized through policy.

Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address
January 27, 2010

Address to Joint Session of Congress
February 24th, 2009

Inaugural Address
January 20, 2009



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2 responses to “President Obama’s State of the Union: More Change than First Appears

  1. I thought the nuclear news was very exciting. I don’t know if it’s a bargaining tool to pass other legislation, but I think it’s a sound policy decision. It’s hard to ignore nuclear generation if your goal is minimizing carbon emissions.

    Does anyone know if the investment in nuclear includes expanding capacity, or just replacing plants that will be moth-balled soon? I think there are even plans for new reactors in California…

  2. juliaharvey

    In the speech, President Obama stated that expansion “means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” which implies an actual increase in nuclear capacity versus maintaining the production level. It’s unclear whether these new plants are Gen III+, or maybe something more advanced. The NRC is currently reviewing 21 new reactor applications, none of which have broken ground.

    Also, I’m confident that plants approaching their nameplate lifespan will be re-licensed to continue operation. Increasing the operational length of NPPs couldn’t hurt the economics. See:

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