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Obama Needs to Make His Environmental Agenda All About the Economy

10/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While it may seem a bit dated (and overdone) now, Bill Clinton's winning 1992 campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," has never felt more relevant. With the number of unemployed on the rise and house prices still in free-fall in many parts of the country, the American consumer is feeling the pinch like never before. Amidst this climate of economic uncertainty, it is perhaps not too surprising that a majority of voters -- close to 74 percent according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll -- have now latched onto the (thoroughly misguided) idea of offshore oil drilling in the hopes of alleviating the burden of record energy prices.

John McCain, in a craven attempt to tap into this growing sense of anxiety, has full-throatedly embraced offshore drilling as the centerpiece of his energy and climate agenda -- going so far as to pick an unknown governor from Alaska as his running mate in part because of her vocal support for unrestricted drilling. Despite the fact that these decisions reflect poorly on McCain's judgment and his commitment to the environment, there is no denying that they, in addition to a perceived successful convention and the campaign's vicious attacks on Barack Obama's character, have bolstered support for the senator's once flagging race.

Adopting a strategy that has helped Republicans win many of the past half-century's elections, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told the Washington Post that, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

And while Davis may eventually be proven right, there is no reason why Obama couldn't try recapturing the lead by focusing on two of the country's most pressing issues: the economy and the environment. Now, granted, selling the environment as a critical issue may not win Obama many converts in this depressed economic climate, but making it a part of his broader economic argument could help.

For example, Obama should stress the need for clean energy technologies by talking up the virtues of his green jobs plan, which would create 5 million new "green-collar" jobs in the manufacturing sector. Voters in Midwestern states like Ohio and Michigan, who have been hardest hit by outsourcing and factory closings, would be particularly receptive to such a message.

A new report released by the Center for American Progress, entitled "Green Recovery," details how a green jobs program that invests just $100 billion over 2 years could create 2 million new jobs, many of which would come from the construction and manufacturing sectors.

When paired with his national infrastructure reinvestment initiative, which would disburse $60 billion over 10 years to fund transportation projects around the country, Obama can credibly argue that his agenda would create several million new jobs by the end of his first term. He can also point to his support for a $150 billion clean technology fund and the extension of renewable tax credits as measures that will encourage innovation in the marketplace and help the economy grow, thus increasing the number of well-paying jobs.

Obama should also go on the attack against McCain by criticizing his (grossly) unfair economic policies as an extension of the Bush agenda and his energy proposals as a suite of wasteful, expensive and largely useless measures. Unlike Obama, McCain does not support the extension of renewable tax credits -- a position for which he has been hammered by academics, businessmen and workers -- and has no plans to revitalize the weak manufacturing and construction sectors by promoting green job growth. (The policies he does offer, which his website claims will help generate "millions of good American jobs," are standard, conservative fare.)

The energy/drilling bill currently making its way through the House and Senate, which is slated to come up for a vote later this week, also offers Obama an opportunity to prove his leadership mettle. While by no means an ideal piece of legislation, the Dem-sponsored package would repeal tax subsidies for big oil and gas companies, renew the tax credits and require utilities to produce 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources (like wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and biomass) by 2020 -- not a bad start.

Obama could help push the bill through the Senate by embracing the so-called Gang of 10 compromise, which allows from the least amount of new drilling in exchange for a number of good renewable energy provisions. By supporting this legislation, he would draw a clear contrast with McCain, who has consistently opposed these progressive measures.

While there is much to be commended about Obama's bold climate plan on the scientific side, he will not be able to win a majority of voters by simply advocating sound science. What voters are looking for first and foremost is a candidate who can help relieve their economic woes. Setting ambitious goals to tackle climate change is good, but it won't help Obama clinch the deal. Fortunately, his other policies could easily do the trick.