The other day I was thinking about just how deficit-centric Obama’s presidency has been to date. A lot of people peg the Administration’s shift from stimulus to deficits as being in late 2009, though this ignores the fact that the Affordable Care Act is mostly a deficit bill that just happens to extend health coverage and establish some new markets and regulations. Really, deficit politics is something of a leitmotif of the Obama Administration post-crisis, the major exceptions being immigration and financial regulatory reform. Given how perfunctorily the latter was pushed, it merely proves the rule.

But if you see Obama as a deficit hawk pretty much from the start–certainly after the TARP and stimulus, when he was branded as a free spender, you kind of have to–it provides a possible answer to why it was that the Administration put climate/energy on the backburner and focused on healthcare instead. I’ve heard a number of rationales on this: that the interests of Democrats were united around healthcare in a way they weren’t around energy, that Obama himself had become personally invested in that fight and wanted to tackle it first, mainly those. Of course, the climate bill (ACES) actually got a large amount of bipartisan support in the House relative to Obama-era norms (8 GOP votes), and action on climate could have been a more natural fit for reconciliation rules than healthcare ever was, though I’m not enough of a legislative expert to authoritatively speak to this. The interests that opposed a climate bill are mainly interests that support conservative Republicans, and only a small number of Democrats are joined at the hip to oil and coal interests. I don’t really buy the first argument.

As for the second, the other way of looking at it is that ACES didn’t do any real deficit reduction:

[E]nacting the legislation would increase revenues by $873 billion over the 2010-2019 period and would increase direct spending by $864 billion over that 10-year period. In total, CBO and JCT estimate that enacting the legislation would reduce future budget deficits by about $4 billion over the 2010-2014 period and by about $9 billion over the 2010-2019 period

A billion a year is a drop in the bucket. Of course, applying the bulk of that $873 billion to general revenues would be a pretty good chunk of deficit reduction, but the politics of the issue are such that refunding the revenues back to the public is a necessity, both so as to avoid getting the thing dubbed an “energy tax” as well as to secure support from less liberal members. ACES actually did obey the Norquist pledge, mostly, which is why it did get a few GOP votes in the House. A bill just applying the revenues (minus enforcement costs) to the deficit would probably have played out similarly to healthcare, with the same vitriol over taxes and the like. “Get the government out of my gas tank” and “driving panels” would have gone viral, no doubt.

Considering this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama looked at those numbers, was advised that doing it differently would make passage much dicier, and figured healthcare ought to go first since with that he could accomplish both a liberal goal and a centrist goal, expanding coverage and bending the cost curve. Of course, dealing with the deficit is going to be a lot harder if we go through drought and famine in the future because fertile farmland goes barren due to climate effects, and while 16% of people being without healthcare in this country is simply outrageous, climate change is going to affect 100% of the people in this country (and the world), and its effects are likely going to fall hardest on that 16% through higher food prices and the like. Climate should have been the top priority they dealt with, and now that Obama’s deficit fixation is a known quantity, it provides a reasonably compelling answer as to why it wasn’t.

It is merely a theory that fits the facts, though. I guess we’ll have to wait until the glut of books after the Obama Administration is over to get a better sense of it. I sort of hope that there’s a better reason than that Barack Obama got too focused on deficits to give fixing the planet a shot.

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