The Incredible Hulk in Copenhagen

By / 12.7.2009

Among some members of the chattering class, it’s become something of a meme to assert that the Obama administration is too deferential to its opponents — whether Tea Partiers arguing about health care or Senate Republicans attacking on Afghanistan. The charge has especially been taken up by his critics, who seem to delight in attacking the president they’re beating up as a president whom, well, they can beat up. In September, for instance, Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard, “There’s the Obama who defers, the one who dithers, and the one who’s out of touch. The Obama presidencies have one thing in common. They’re all weak.”

These critics should be silenced, at least for a while, by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement today formally declaring that carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant, paving the way for its regulation under the Clean Air Act.

On the cusp of meetings in Copenhagen to discuss an international climate treaty, the announcement has huge significance. It essentially enables the administration to circumvent climate obstructionists in Congress. Under the rules announced today, the administration can not only directly regulate carbon — it can exceed the limits contemplated by current Senate and House bills that would cap carbon dioxide emissions by 17 to 20 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

It seems unlikely that the EPA will actually act unilaterally to regulate carbon; the most administrable policy will probably remain market-based solutions such as cap-and-trade and similar proposals, rather than a command-and-control approach. However, the announcement today has political and strategic significance beyond its legal effect — and shows that the administration has just opened a brand new offensive playbook on carbon.

Two things are clear from the announcement today. First, the EPA decision puts the president on an unequivocal and strong footing for his visit to Copenhagen in a little over a week. The president will now be able to assert leadership on the issue on the basis of a clear authority to act.

Second, with today’s announcement, Barack Obama has placed a big stick on his desk in the Oval Office. His opponents in Congress and in industry will be pounding their own desks in outrage. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-OH) immediately released a statement today, for instance, saying, “The EPA claims its process is dictated by science, however, it’s conveniently timed to push its politics.” Yes, that is a plaintive note you detected in Sensenbrenner’s statement. That’s because the president’s opponents will now have no option but to play on the president’s turf on carbon.

Cap-and-trade passed the U.S. House earlier this year. As it stands, cap and trade — originally a market-based, Republican-friendly program — faces a very uncertain fate next spring in the U.S. Senate. But with his move today, the president has told Senate opposition that he has the upper hand, and that if they do not act to cut carbon, he will. On climate change, where the president will certainly be faced with Tea Party-ish opposition every day of his administration, the Incredible Hulk-like transformation (green meeting muscle) comes just in time.