NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Of all the problems President Obama faces -- from the war in Afghanistan to the economy -- there aren't very many that undermine his presidency, and his chances for reelection, more than those "foot-tall numbers on street corners throughout the country," as the New York Times put it the other day. That's why I wonder: Why does Obama have such an indecisive, meandering energy policy?It's not surprising that the Republicans would seek to exploit the pain consumers are experiencing at the gas pump -- they'd be fools not to. But I'd expect from Obama, as an experienced Chicago pol, a politically sound strategy of some kind. Yet all that seems to be coming out of the White House are mixed signals that satisfy nobody, with an "all of the above" energy strategy -- itself snatched from Republican talking points -- encompassing increased oil and gas production and alternative energy. What that suggests is a president trying to be all things to all people. "Leading from behind" may work in Libya (though even that's dubious) but not when it comes to the painful choices Americans have to make when it comes to energy. Obama infuriated Republicans and the oil industry with his rejection -- for now -- of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. Environmentalists would have preferred to see the pipeline killed outright, but they were happy about this. But if Obama was truly in favor of "all of the above" (include oil drilling), he'd have allowed the pipeline to go forward. Instead, he gave the Republicans a "he's against jobs" talking point. Meanwhile, Obama infuriated the growing anti-hydrofracking movement by endorsing that controverisal method of extracting natural gas from shale formations. If Keystone is an emotional issue for environmentalists, hydrofracking is capable of sending quite a few of them -- and a lot of non-environmentalists -- into an absolute frenzy. Obama contended in his State of the Union address that hydrofracking can be performed safely, in a dubious assessment of the well-publicized risks of a technique that has engendered vociferous opposition. The Keystone versus hydrofracking dichotomy left Obama supporters feeling, and not for the first time, that their support was being taken for granted. But it's hardly going to do a thing to induce the oil industry to weaken its ferocious opposition to everything he stands for. The large oil companies pour money into Republican coffers, and are likely to continue to do so, no matter how much Obama angers environmentalists by endorsing hydrofracking and taking other positions they don't like.
Exxon Mobil, for instance, has been a big contributor to Congressional Republicans, especially Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. For its part, Chevron is especially fondof Orrin Hatch, the hard-right Utah Republican who's a great friend of the petroleum industry. BP, for obvious public-relations reasons, has greatly reduced its political contributions in recent years -- and nowadays it leans in favor of Obama for some reason. But that's an outlier, because in general the oil patch is a big fan of Mitt Romney, who has gotten almost half a million dollars from the oil industry -- though, admittedly, that's dwarfed by the wads of cash he's received from hedge funds and bankers. Still, the campaign is young. The Republicans, at least, are consistent -- pro-drilling and anti-environment. By contrast, there's an aimlessness to Obama's energy policy. At the same time that he throws a bone to the natural gas industry by supporting hydrofracking, he hikes the royalties oil companies must pay to drill on federal land by 50%, for the first time since the 1920s. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are appalled that the Obama administration has given the green light to oil drilling off the coast of Alaska. But at the same time that he's annoying the oil industry and infuriating environmentalists over the Arctic and hydrofracking, it's sometimes almost as if there's an environmentalist residing in Obama's gut, clawing to get out, judging from the number of alternative energy projects that Obama has allowed on federal lands. They almost quadrupled in the first two years of his presidency. That, too, is not totally without risk. As I explained in this space a couple of weeks ago, wind power, which is heavily subsidized by tax breaks, has engendered stiff opposition from local communities. Solar power has proven to be a liability for Obama, with the Solyndra bankruptcy giving him a major embarrassment. There is something of a silver lining in the recent performance of publicly traded solar energy companies like Suntech Power, SunPower, First Solar, Renesola, LDK Solar and JA Solar. They've all proven disappointing to investors over the long term, but their recent price performance has been encouraging. Still, only the most glassy-eyed optimists believe that solar power will have any major impact on energy prices for a long time to come.
Overall, it's a pretty grim picture for consumers hoping for lower, or at least stable, gas and heating oil prices. Despite his please-nobody "all the above" strategy, and despite alienating his base on hydrofracking and annoying the oil industry by stopping the Keystone pipeline, Obama hasn't got a heck of a lot to show for his energy policy, especially when it comes to curbing increases in oil and gasoline prices. While the Republican attack line that Obama is deliberately elevating oil prices to cut demand is a lot of bunk, the fact is that Obama has only a tangential influence on oil and gasoline prices, though one can argue that his indecisive approach has contributed to uncertainty in the market. His lack of control will become even more pronounced if international tensions get any worse than they are. If Israel attacks Iran, the oil-price spike could be enormous. Obama will share the blame for any resulting economic pain, whether that's fair or not. If he restrains Israel from attacking Iran, and Iran gets the bomb, he'll get the blame for that too. Of course, if that happens -- and if the Iranians actually use that bomb -- rising oil and gas prices would be the least of our worries. Gary Weiss's next book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on February 28.
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