Amidst the concrete barricades blocking off Amherst Alley, snipers on the Z-Center, the motorcade hustling past our dorms on Memorial Drive, and of course, the Presidential podium in Kresge, it’s easy to forget that Barack Obama came to MIT to deliver a message. It may not have been a very profound message, nor something we haven’t heard before, but since it happened here its worthwhile to think about and ask: What did the President tell us? Perhaps more importantly: What didn’t he tell us?
In his Friday column in The Tech, Gary Shu identifies the same problem that Barack Obama highlighted in his Kresge address — the oft-mentioned “political realities” that always get in the way when important things need to get done. “The professional grant writers called ‘professors’,” writes Shu, often capitalize on “academic fads” to bolster research funds when the research hasn’t fundamentally changed. Like nanotech and biotech, Shu argues that “clean energy” may fall among these fads.
Put on top of that the “political realities” Obama spoke about — “There may be plenty of room for debate as to how we transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels — we all understand there’s no silver bullet to do it,” the President said. But expectedly and yet still disappointingly, he failed to offer any solution of his own on how to ease this enormous transition or how he plans to combat the forces in Congress and industry that will work against it. So when at the academic, political, and economic levels there are enormous roadblocks to migrating America to a clean and sustainable energy infrastructure, Obama takes his 20 minutes at MIT to encourage research and innovation when that isn’t the real problem.
That “debate” Obama talked about is the debate that needs to be happening right now. Americans’ extraordinary ability to innovate in science and technology is not in question. Our ability to compromise with each other and craft effective national policy is in question. And it’s precisely the President’s job to direct this debate, listen to both sides, and make a decision. Nothing’s going to magically fall into place and not even the threat of catastrophic climate change is enough to spur Congress to act quickly and intelligently on this issue.
The burden therefore falls on the President’s shoulders to decide how to implement clean energy reforms using technology developed right here at MIT as well as fight the ineffectualness of Congress and combat the national “pessimism” surrounding this issue. He should learn from his mistakes in pushing through healthcare reform — he must use all the political capital he has left, rally the Democratic Party (that means you, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate) around his leadership and most of all, be tough. Sweet words and praise for American solidarity in research and innovation will do nothing to change the battle-lines drawn in Congress.
How can Obama be this kind of leader? How, even down to the university-campus level, when so many people do not have genuine energy reform at heart, can Obama hope to effect the kind of change he is calling for? Simple — forget the “bipartisan” route and use the political resources he has now. Obama should use Vice President Biden’s influence, know-how and connections in the Senate to help unite the Democratic Party around clean-energy goals. He should assume the role of a party leader, indeed an expansion of his traditional powers as “chief executive.” But would this just be another example of the 2008 campaign’s dreaded “politics-as-usual”? If Obama actually manages to pass real reform, then no, certainly not.