On Meeting Obama, His Innovation Initiative, and His Priorities
When I met briefly with President Obama on Wednesday, he assured me the environment was a “priority.” But there’s just one niggling thing that doesn’t quite jibe for me.
First, About the Meeting
It all started on Monday. I got a call from the White House Council on Environmental Quality — the president was coming to Raleigh, North Carolina, to make a speech that would touch on energy issues and would I like to attend and have a “meet and greet” with him. It didn’t take me long — we’re talking a split second — to answer yes, they then asked for a few personal particulars to get me through the security check and I was on the list.
Obama’s speech was scheduled for around noon on Tuesday, just down the road at North Carolina State University, where he was to announce the latest hub for manufacturing innovation that he hopes will spur technological innovation, homegrown manufacturing and ultimately jobs.
I was advised to arrive early and so got there around 10:30, and then waited and mingled with the other guests in my section. A little after noon, about 50 of us were ushered backstage where we lined up single file, then one by one entered a curtained off area for our moment with the president.
I began my 40 seconds by asking him how he was feeling. Good, he said, then he asked me in kind. I answered, then quickly turned the colloquy toward concerns about the environment, and urged him to continue to push on environmental issues.
He assured me the environment is one of his “priorities” (speaking of, here are several I listed just before his second term began). We then had an official photo snapped (to be posted here when it arrives).
As the meeting ended, I invited him to the upcoming Duke-North Carolina basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. We bantered about that and he laughed, revealing a set of magnificent pearly whites.* I returned to the auditorium to catch my breath.
The President’s North Carolina Announcement
Some 20 minutes later, President Obama entered the auditorium to enthusiastic cheers from a largely North Carolina State audience. He had shed the blue blazer he’d worn at the “meet and greet,” opting now for the getting-down-to-business, rolled-up-shirt-sleeves look.
His overarching theme was jobs — he called this year the “year of action” for creating new jobs, and claimed that we have a stronger economy “thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the American people.” Among the credits he gave for our strengthening economy was his energy strategy:
“Because of an all-of-the-above strategy for American energy, for the first time in nearly two decades we produce more oil here in the United States than we buy from the rest of the world. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. (Applause.) We now generate more renewable energy than ever before, more natural gas than anybody on the planet. (Applause.) We’re lowering energy costs, reducing pollution.” (Watch video of speech.)
This is the thing that just doesn’t quite jibe for me. I have long had a problem trying to rationalize an administration that claims to prioritize the environment, and that promises, as Obama did in his last State of Union address, to move on climate change, while at the same time doing everything it can to extract and exploit fossil fuels.
So is the president’s environmental “priority” claim simple political posturing? I would have to say certainly not — he has accomplished a good deal on the environmental side of the ledger: for example, fuel economy standards, regs on new coal-fired power plants, standards limiting mercury emissions.
And, if you think about it, and to the president’s environmental credit in my view, his “all of the above” policy doesn’t seem to include coal. (See here, here and here.) Still, if you ask me if Obama’s pride in pointing out how much oil we’re now pumping (and fracking) out of the ground and his much touted commitment on climate change are just a bit schizo (and/or politically expedient), I’d have to say yes.
The Nub of the Speech: The New Hub
The meat of the president’s speech was about the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute — a $140 million project involving a university-corporation consortium led by North Carolina State University and aimed at developing next-generation wide bandgap semiconductors [pdf] capable of improving the efficiency of electronic chips and other devices.
This center is one of three planned hubs for manufacturing innovation. (The other two, yet to be announced, will focus on “digital manufacturing and design innovation” and “lightweight metal innovation.”) All modeled on a Youngstown, Ohio-based pilot project focused on 3D printing, these three centers, the president claims, will help catapult the United States to the front of the pack in high tech and innovation all while creating high-skill jobs for Americans.
A Clear Winner?
The audience, dominated by the North Carolina State Wolfpack, was agog over the prospect of winning a $140 million project, and President Obama used that Wolfpack enthusiasm to his advantage getting loud cheers whenever he praised the university. As a member of the faculty from the rival university down the road — and as someone who’ll be rooting heartily against the Wolfplack this Saturday afternoon at Cameron — I was not quite as enthusiastic when the subject of North Carolina State came up.
But what did spark my enthusiasm was the president’s decision that the first of the three manufacturing innovation centers is focused on energy efficiency. I think I’ll score that one for the environment.
* Lest you think basketball was a strange subject to bring up with the president, we already had some common ground on the subject. The last time I visited with President Obama was in September 2010 when I was among a Blue Devil contingent being congratulated by the president in the Rose Garden on the basketball team’s NCAA championship.