In 2008, Barack Obama ran two nearly flawless national campaigns when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election. Four years later, he defeated Mitt Romney in a campaign that, except for one dismal debate performance, proved Obama to be a pitch-perfect candidate. But despite these impressive political accomplishments, the president seems to have been having trouble governing over the past 12 months.
On foreign policy, the Obama administration showed its indecisiveness when dealing with the unfolding political debacle in Syria. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act could not have been more botched. And in November, with little fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency made a move that stunned the environmental community — and sent shock waves through Washington — when it made a 180-degree shift on the White House’s long-held position on renewable fuels.
Historically, Obama has supported biofuels. In 2005, as the senator from Illinois, he voted for the bipartisan Energy Policy Act, which established the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and required that renewable fuels be blended into the national fuel supply to reduce the consumption of conventional gasoline and diesel. In 2007, Obama voted for a follow-up bill that set the mandated amounts of renewable fuels to be used, increasing from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.
In particular, Obama was a champion of biodiesel, which is designated as an “advanced” biofuel by the EPA. Biodiesel burns cleaner than diesel, creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. It also can be made from an array of renewable sources, even waste products such as recycled cooking oil. Obama showed his support for biodiesel while he was campaigning for president in 2008 when he and running mate Joe Biden toured a biodiesel plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Then, in 2011, as president, Obama made sure his “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” contained provisions to promote biodiesel.
Obama’s support for biofuels continued into 2013. In February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack detailed the administration’s commitment to biofuels. “Our position,” he said in a press briefing, “is that we are strong supporters of the RFS. It’s working. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do. We would hope Congress will continue to allow it to work.”
In August, the EPA announced the continuation of expected RFS mandates. The decision prompted Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to demand that the Obama administration not just reconsider RFS guidelines, something that opponents of RFS including Big Oil have suggested, but to end the mandates altogether.
The Obama administration ignored critics like Vitter — until it pulled an about-face. On November 15, out of the blue, the EPA announced its intention to slash RFS mandates, cutting the amount of renewable fuel for 2014 to 15 billion gallons, down from the 16 billion required in 2013 and the 18 billion demanded by the RFS mandates established in 2007. This represented an almost 20 percent reduction in mandated use of biofuels, the first time the law had been softened since the original bill passed in 2005 during the administration of George W. Bush. Even more shockingly, biodiesel, the only advanced biofuel produced on a national scale, was cut almost 50 percent by some estimates.
Proponents of biofuels were stunned. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, was equally harsh. In a stinging letter to the president, Braley, who was “angered and frustrated,” argued that the reversal amounted to an “unprecedented pivot” from previous policy that would harm the economy in general and the biofuel industry in particular. “I’m stunned,” he wrote, “that the White House is caving to Big Oil.”
Former Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., saw the reversal as a potential political blunder. “The biodiesel announcement,” Shows wrote in an op-ed, “was puzzling because the president has stated for years that advanced biofuels, such as biodiesel, are a critical component of this nation’s fuel supply.” The flip-flop reveals an administration that is “indecisive,” which could prove disastrous for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm election.
On that point, beyond the pundits, the television commentators, and the president himself, the final arbiter on whether the Obama administration is up to the task of governing will be the American voters themselves — when they go to the polls in November.
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove. His political reporting has appeared in George, Rolling Stone, Salon and The Huffington Post.