Obama’s Climate Win Won’t Stop His Downward Slide
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Climate Win Won’t Stop His Downward Slide

© Benoit Tessier / Reuters

President Obama had reason to revel over the historic climate change agreement ratified by the U.S. and 194 other countries in Paris over the weekend. It capped years of intense effort by Obama to bring along China, India and other global polluters while implementing tough standards at home to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.  

“This agreement represents the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got,” Obama said at the White House on Saturday following the unanimous vote. “This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future.”

Related: Related:  U.S. Senators Vow to Block Climate Aid, Scrutinize Paris Deal

But in many ways, Obama’s hands had been tied by a recalcitrant Republican-controlled Congress that has opposed rigorous new rules for curtailing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants that most scientists say are contributing to the global warming crisis.

Just as Republicans have opposed Obama on the Affordable Care Act, the Iranian nuclear agreement, and his executive action on immigration, GOP legal and legislative action against his climate change policies hampered how far he could go in the international talks.

The final deal will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only about half the levels necessary to address the worst of the problem, according to the agreementNew York Times. And the signatories are not legally bound to meet their long-term commitments – largely because there was no way Obama could win Senate approval of anything resembling a binding treaty.

Instead, countries will be obliged to periodically report on what they are doing to meet the overall target, but the global warming pact is voluntary.

“Some countries simply wouldn’t accept the mandatory mechanism, we among them,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Fox News Sunday yesterday. “So the best we can do in an effort to try to begin to change people’s thinking is to do this mandatory reporting requirement  . . . that has to be updated every five years.”

Saturday’s global warming agreement likely marks the last important victory of the Obama administration, as the president finally appears to be slipping into lame duck status with little more than a year remaining in his second term.

Related: Obama Tries to Calm Fears in Major Address to Nation

While it’s always risky to write off a president who has lost his executive mojo and public support as a lame duck, the events of the past week or so suggest that he has begun to move dangerously into that territory. For example:

Obama’s 14-minute address to the nation one week ago seeking to reassure Americans after the deadly terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California and Paris was widely panned by Republicans and Democrats alike as tepid and defensive. Many viewed it as little more than a rehash of Obama’s year-old strategy for trying to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Prominent leaders on both sides of the aisle said the country needed a more robust response from the commander-in-chief.

“Is that all there is?” Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump tweeted after the speech. “We need a new President – FAST!”

A new Gallup survey published last week showed a sharp erosion in Americans’ confidence in the Obama administration and the government to protect citizens from the actions of terrorists. Barely more than half of those interviewed (55 percent) said they trust the administration to protect them from terrorists, down 12 percentage points since June.

Related: Trump Rises on a Perfect Storm of Public Fear

Obama lacks the leverage to force the Senate to approve his judicial nominations and other more routine administration appointments, as the Republicans procrastinate hoping the GOP wins back the White House next November. Politico reported last week that 19 potential judges, six ambassadors and two high-ranking State Department nominees are awaiting floor action. That has put the Senate on course for approving the fewest confirmations in 30 years.

Congress is threatening to perform major surgery on the Affordable Care Act by postponing  for two years -- and effectively killing -- two important health care tax provisions required for funding the program and slowing the growth of health care costs. Many Democrats and labor organizations have broken with Obama to support an effort to eliminate the “Cadillac tax” on high-end health insurance plans provided by employers. The medical devices industry has also found bipartisan support for eliminating an excise tax on medical equipment and materials.

Finally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has threatened to postpone a vote on Obama’s signature Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement until after the 2016 presidential election.

McConnell has voiced concerns about provisions of the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade agreement that is the capstone of Obama’s trade initiatives. He told The Washington Post last week that the president is risking defeat of the deal if he tries to push for passage before next year’s lame-duck session -- the time between the general elections and when the new Congress convenes. “It certainly shouldn’t come before the election," McConnell said.

Related: How the TPP Trade Deal Could Blow Up the Primaries

The White House voiced surprise at McConnell’s pronouncement, in part because the Republican leader had been instrumental in gaining the fast-track authority the administration sought to complete negotiations of the deal. “Our view is that it is possible for Congress to carefully consider the details of this agreement and to review all the benefits associated with this agreement ... without kicking the vote all the way to the lame-duck period,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “There is no reason we have to wait that long.”

Obama has been underestimated before in the waning months of his second term, and yet he surprised many when he prevailed over the Republicans earlier this year in winning congressional consent for the Iran nuclear deal. But in the coming year, he likely will find much of his time consumed by fending off rear guard actions by Republican lawmakers and state officials to thwart his climate change rules and to continue to pick away at the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) told the HouseNew York Times in an interview late last week that it is highly unlikely there will be any more important legislation passed as the 2016 campaign season heats up. “We’re not going to solve these big problems with his president in the next year,” he said. “I see the need to offer a bold [GOP] alternative” to eight years of the Obama agenda.