BY SPENCER SLAGOWITZ || JUNE 27TH, 2017
Apparently, it is “Energy Week” at the White House. Another one of several themed weeks that have been instituted, despite their little substantive content. Didn’t you know it was “Tech Week” last week, “Workforce Development Week” the week before, and “Infrastructure Week”, the one before that? Me neither.
The initiative, a misguided attempt to create order out of the chaos that perpetually emanates from the communications catastrophe that is the woefully disorganized Trump administration, has failed hilariously. So much so, that Politico dedicated an entire article to it. Unsurprisingly, the onus falls considerably on the President himself:
“White House officials acknowledge privately that their policy messages haven’t been able to compete with the flood of news about the Russia investigation — in part, because it’s nearly impossible to keep the president himself on message. Trump has continued to blast out missives about the Russia “witch hunt” and his myriad frustrations, including ongoing challenges to his travel ban, distracting from other events at the White House. The president talks about the Russia investigation more than any other topic, White House aides and advisers said.
Asked about potential themes for upcoming weeks, one senior Trump aide laughed and said, “Whatever he tweets.”
An ineffectual and disorderly communications process is representative of a broader trend at a White House overwhelmed by the demands of governance. For example, the early days of this administration have been defined by a phenomenally poor inter-agency coordination process (see this just today on the Syrian deterrence statement, and more criticisms here). An especially concerning phenomenon given that, while Trump flaunts his concern for foreign policy and justifies his radical policy agenda on specious national security grounds, coordination between disparate federal agencies and cabinet departments is central to U.S foreign policy process.
Furthermore, during the campaign, Trump leveraged his dubious business credentials to promise voters that he would replace an effete liberal elite drowning in bureaucracy and strangled by red tape, with business leadership from a businessman. Yet, the President has struggled to complete the first and most essential task of any administration: hiring the individuals who will actually form it.
According to a joint-project between the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, of the 560 key executive branch positions that the President must fill, only 46 have gone through the final step of being confirmed by the Senate. Sure, staffing the administrative state is a difficult endeavor fraught with petty political squabbling, but Obama had already confirmed nearly four times that number by a similar point in his presidency. And before you blame partisan obstruction, note that while the average confirmation time per nominee has been higher for Trump’s picks, it is only slightly so (43 days per nominee compared to 34 days for Obama’s nominees). Moreover, Trump’s nominees have been genuinely terrible (Ahem! Betsy DeVos, Andrew Puzder) and have, as a result, accumulated the most “no” votes of any nominees of any President since America’s founding. Most importantly, however, the Senate cannot be blamed for the nominees that the President has yet to select. Trump has not, to this date, nominated nearly 400 (396, to be exact) of those 560 posts. With 70% of key posts (and 85% of top science posts) without even as much as a nominee, the responsibility lies unequivocally and entirely with the White House.
It is among this environment of chaos and disorganization, that “Energy Week” emerged early this week. Its Master of Ceremonies (or at the very least, it’s spokesperson) was none other than erstwhile presidential candidate and head-of-the-agency-he-once-forgot-he-wanted-to-eliminate Energy Secretary Rick Perry. During a White House press briefing and in statements to the press earlier this week, Perry alleged and advanced all sorts of bizarre claims regarding clean energy and the “America First” energy plan. But, the most strange was his suggestion that the Obama administration had repeatedly claimed that the American people would have to sacrifice American jobs and economic vitality to protect the environment.
As the Washington Examiner reported:
“This week will also reaffirm our commitment to clean energy,” Perry said. “The binary choice between being pro-economy and pro-environment that was perpetuated by the Obama administration, it set up a false argument,” he said. “We can do good for both, and we will.”
What was most remarkable is how central Perry makes this claim to his argument and messaging. (Especially, given how how radical the administration’s plan is. But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.)
However, when Perry claims that his plan recognizes that environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive and specifically contrasts it to the Obama administration’s approach, I’m shocked. Not only because its mendacious with regards to the plan’s policy substance but also because the idea that ‘economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive’, was the central message of the very same Obama-era approach to energy policy which Perry decries.
Don’t take it from me, take it from our 44th President himself.
From a speech to the United Nations in 2009:
For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet – famine and drought; disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources. Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both. It will do little good to alleviate poverty if you can no longer harvest your crops or find drinkable water.
In a speech to Georgetown in 2013:
The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.
[later on in the speech]
Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. (Applause.) Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.
Again, in a speech in front of the UN in 2014:
So, all told, these advances have helped create jobs, grow our economy, and drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly two decades — proving that there does not have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth.
Once more, in a statement on the Paris Climate Agreement and the conclusion of the COP21 negotiations:
Now, skeptics said these [climate] actions would kill jobs. Instead, we’ve seen the longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history. We’ve driven our economic output to all-time highs while driving our carbon pollution down to its lowest level in nearly two decades. And then, with our historic joint announcement with China last year, we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides between developed and developing nations that had stymied global progress for so long.
Or maybe in this speech in Hawaii last year:
So there’s no conflict between a healthy economy and a healthy planet. And that’s why I’ve committed, along with Canada and Mexico, to get 50 percent of U.S. electricity from clean sources by 2025. And with many of our biggest businesses switching to clean energy, I’m absolutely confident that we can meet that goal.
Or finally in this January 2017 Science article, written post-presidency:
ECONOMIES GROW, EMISSIONS FALL
The United States is showing that GHG mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation.
Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record. Specifically, CO2emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8%, and CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18% (2).
The importance of this trend cannot be understated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living.
I rest my case.
However, while this bizarre case of revisionist history perplexes and stuns, in the context of a disorganized and ineffectual communications process, it makes sense as a gaffe. Think of all the unfourtunate mistakes Spicer racked up during his press briefings earlier this year. And with Spicer still pulling double duty as Press Secretary and Acting Communications Director, following the departure of Mike Dubke, and with a communications staff populated by the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it’s perfectly reasonable to interpret this as a messaging failure. In many ways, it’s really silly messaging. It is a statement that is easily refutable and discarded. Insofar as you make it the crux of how you frame your clean energy plan, opponents quite literally can A) Agree with you B) Tout the statements Obama said above as well as the decoupling argument C) Turn your argument on yourself.
But ultimately, when the only two explanations for such a statement is ineptitude and untruthfulness (ok, granted this is politics), it truly reveals how disastrous the first few months of the Trump presidency have been. One would think that communications would be the strong suit of this President, one who does not really rely on policy expertise or a robust substantive agenda to win political points. So if the Trump administration cannot slap together a decent communications operation, what does that say about the administrates ability to make policy, to govern, or to fulfill the responsibility of the executive branch?