Obama's Evolving Ethanol Rhetoric
ALEC MacGILLIS / Washington Post 23jun2008
Given that energy appears likely to be a dominant issue in this election season, Barack Obama's campaign may want to settle on a more consistent message when it comes to subsidies for ethanol, the corn-based alternative fuel that is hailed by some as a key resource in weaning America off foreign oil and forestalling global warming but lambasted by others as a wasteful boondoggle that is driving up food prices.
Since entering the Senate in 2005, Obama has been a staunch supporter of ethanol — he justified his vote for for the Bush Administration's 2005 energy bill, which was favorable to the oil industry, on the grounds that it also contained subsidies for ethanol and other forms of alternative energy, and he has sought earmarks for research projects on ethanol and other biofuels in his home state of Illinois, the second-highest corn-producing state after Iowa. Obama's support for ethanol is shared by many farm state senators (even Hillary Clinton came around after an ethanol industry took root in upstate New York) but it contrasts sharply with John McCain, who has for years been so critical of the subsidies that he decided not to compete in the 2000 Iowa caucuses.
Today, in a New York Times article on Obama's support for ethanol, Jason Furman, the Obama campaign's new economic policy director, is quoted saying that Obama's stance on the issue was based on the merits, a determination that ethanol subsidies are in the national interest. "That is what has always motivated him on this issue, and will continue to determine his policy going forward," Furman said. The article continues: "Asked if Mr. Obama brought any predisposition or bias to the ethanol debate because he represents a corn-growing state that stands to benefit from a boom, Mr. Furman said, 'He wants to represent the United States of America, and his policies are based on what's best for the country.'"
It was the expected answer during a presidential campaign — except that it flies in the face of what Obama himself said on the issue a few months ago. Asked about his support for ethanol during a press conference at a gas station in Indianapolis in April, Obama was remarkably candid in explaining why he backed the subsidies: "Look, I've been a strong ethanol supporter because Illinois ... is a major corn producer," he said. He went on to say that he was concerned about reports that ethanol was helping drive up food prices, and that he saw ethanol as merely a transitional option that would eventually give way to biofuels that were more efficient and has less of an impact on food prices, such as ones made out of switchgrass.
Furman came on board the campaign only this month, so it is understandable if he is not entirely on the same page yet with the candidate. The fact is, though, that Obama's record in the Senate has been very clearly influenced by what he viewed as the needs of his Illinois constituents, particularly those in "downstate" Illinois, where Obama has pointed to his popularity as proof that he can win over voters in more rural and conservative areas. Obama is supporting the new farm bill, which McCain also derides as wasteful, because he believes it will help farmers in his state; he backed last year's $14 billion Water Resources Development Act (also opposed by McCain) after making sure it included money to upgrade locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers) and he backed huge subsidies last year for liquefied coal — a highly controversial technology that would be a boon for Southern Illinois mines — before backing away from the idea under fire from environmentalists.