01/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Global Challenge

A recent Huffington Post piece by high ranking Obama campaign strategist Steve Hildebrand urged that progressives stop calling out some of the president elect's appointees as fellow travelers of the Clinton era triangulators, and suggested in effect that progressives give progress a chance -- a mild protest that might easily be viewed as confusing sound advice with overt criticism.

There can be little doubt that the president elect's public pronouncements to date have been encouraging, especially his apparent commitment to transitioning the country to a clean energy economy. But powerful and long established corporate forces in Washington, as well as deeply-rooted economic habits, will likely prove far more of an impediment to this laudable goal than any criticism from the left, whose united support Obama may need in the long run much more than its silence.

Therefore, questions raised about Democratic operatives who have supported corporate America's global agenda in the past deserve serious consideration; for, the issues in play are too complex and the stakes for working Americans far too high to expect that the left should render itself mute.

For example, as desirable as a clean energy future may be for combating global warming, the need of America's basic industries for energy on a massive scale will not soon be displaced by renewable sources. Herein lies one of the more politically significant challenges for the incoming Obama administration in crafting a strategy for economic renewal: addressing the lingering differences between environmentalists and industrial advocates within labor.

The rub is that America's energy future is literally a goods news, bad news joke. The good news is that America has more than enough domestic resources to meet its energy needs. The bad news is, the resource is coal.

This stark reality confounds environmentalists and amplifies their differences with Labor, at times engendering tension within collaborative efforts such as the Blue Green and Apollo Alliances that embrace both constituencies. Coal is the resource that electrifies industrial production. Its future in a clean energy economy is likewise the subject environmentalists choke on, such as former Vice President Al Gore's recent assertion that clean coal technology is among the "dirtier and more expensive new ways to extract the same old fuels."

The more legitimate debate, given the considerable number of years that a transition to renewable energy will take, is over the relative amount of federal dollars to be invested in a new generation of clean coal, since America is not presently one of the three countries that has an experimental project in place. Unless environmentalists are prepared to see a further decline in industrial output or a rebirth of nuclear energy, they will sooner or later have to come to terms with a significant degree of federal investments in cleaner coal.

The President elect has already given a hint of his proclivities by calling for the federal government to fund the Future Gen clean coal technology project in downstate Illinois, an investment that Congress approved and the Bush administration subsequently nixed.

A related issue that divides progressives is the negative impact that cap and trade can have on domestic employment under the current global trading regime. The debate last Spring over the Warner-Lieberman bill in the Senate failed even to address the need for a border adjustment fee on the carbon content of imports that might not meet the emissions standards imposed by cap and trade.

Chinese steel, for example, has twice the carbon content per ton as steel produced in the U.S. Unless a cost is levied on carbon excesses in these and other goods imported from our trading partners, the danger is real that multinational corporations will export even more production to countries "free" from the environmental constraints imposed by cap and trade.

President elect Obama's temporizing leadership offers an opportunity of resolving the complex competing issues and interests at work in addressing global warming, though the top appointments to his economic team appear to raise the odds that the Clintonian crede of championing cheaper consumer goods through unfettered trade will be redacted.

With a few notable exceptions, major appointees to the economic team are disciples of Robert Rubin, who may yet prove to have served Citigroup's Last Supper as chair of its executive committee. Recent credible accounts finger Rubin for counseling ever riskier investments in mortgage securities, a caper that has already caused more than $45 billion of taxpayers' money to be poured down the Citigroup rat hole.

That Rubin's disciples will deliver us to the promised land of a more productive clean energy economy that favors domestic production over global "competition" seems a lot to hope for, an unwelcome doubt that brought to mind an interview years ago with the late Eugene McCarthy.

Accused of being cynical in an answer he offered, McCarthy replied, "I've never thought of myself as a cynic. I've always thought of myself as a skeptic with experience." Which leaves one hoping finally that under Obama's leadership even the skepticism born of experience with Rubin's disciples will prove unwarranted.