Sandy’s Memory Fades Fast in Washington

Will Obama act on his own? “The window is closing for climate.”

Seth Wenig, File / AP

WASHINGTON, DC — One of the most enduring images of the election cycle is President Barack Obama’s embrace of Chris Christie in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which gave the president an image boost just a week before polls closed.

The storm also appeared to give new momentum to the failed push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — but that momentum may be fading as the White House looks to spend the political capital of the president’s reelection on budget negotiations.

Obama “has a mandate on the issues he claims to have a mandate on, and right now that’s taxes,” said one Capitol Hill Democrat involved in climate change legislation. “The window is closing for climate.”

Indeed, as the East Coast struggles to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy, and as some coastal residents still suffer its effects, Congress remains unlikely to act on carbon emissions, experts say, and the central open question appears to be whether Obama’s Environmental Protection Administration will take unilateral action on the issue — and avoid dealing directly with Congress on a question that has split Democrats from coal states from their party.

“I think the administration will do what they tried to do on climate in 2009,” said one. “With the courts ruling that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases, the EPA becomes the hammer.”

With the EPA’s court victory over a business community challenge earlier this year, the agency can continue to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, but more expansive efforts, including a cap-and-trade system, would have to come from Congress.

“I don’t think anyone has had a clearer mandate than Obama in 2008, yet…the greenhouse gas bill got through the House, but couldn’t get through the Senate,” the activist said.

The stalled energy legislation was a signal defeat of Obama’s early first term, which saw him succeed in passing both an economic stimulus and health care legislation. And climate had been the subject of some of Obama’s most urgent campaign trail promises.

“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Obama promised of his election.

To date, he has taken some steps in that direction, enacting tougher mileage requirements for vehicles in particular, but nowhere near what the Green lobby had hoped.

That’s in part because of the unexpectedly difficult politics of the issue, with Republicans turning grand promises into a joke.

“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” Mitt Romney quipped at the Republican National Convention. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

In the wake of the storm, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama specifically because he was open to leading on climate change, and groups like the League of Conservation Voters juxtaposed Romney’s sneering line with scenes of coastal flooding, a new kind of environmental attack ad.

But with the election in the rearview mirror, other priorities like the fiscal cliff and immigration reform stand to occupy the next year or more of the president’s attention.

“The president has got a mandate on what he deems to be his priorities,” said Navin Nayak, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “I think Sandy has absolutely put this front and center, but it remains to be seen if this will be a priority.”

“You don’t want to squander your time on things that don’t get done in Congress, but you also don’t want to squander time on small bore issues,” he added. “Climate is not small bore. There’s no bigger issue. There’s no bigger legacy opportunity.”

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