Don’t look now but Barack Obama just made Kevin Rudd look like a die-hard lefty, at least on energy policy.

Plans announced yesterday to guarantee billions in federal loans to two nuclear reactors in Georgia is possibly the first genuinely bold move the US President has made since declaring he’d rather be a successful one-term President than an ineffective two-termer.

“On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t continue to be mired in the same old stale debates between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs,” Obama said during an address to supportive union workers in Maryland. “Our competitors are racing to create jobs and command growing energy industries. And nuclear energy is no exception.”

Timed to coincide with negotiations with Republicans over passing his massive jobs Bill, Obama has pulled one of the GOP’s few concrete energy policies and made it his own.

In doing so he has offended his base — the all-important commodity in Washington — the same week as polls said a majority of voters, 52%, thought he did not deserve to be elected to a second term.

Obama campaigned on a platform of green renewable energy, for jobs, for the environment, for keeping America competitive in what he predicted would be a key industry this century. The campaign rhetoric didn’t rule out nuclear, however, giving him an opening for playing the very same short-term politics that he has twice now accused the Republicans in Congress of abusing.

Congress is deadlocked, Democrats still haven’t resolved their health-care reform woes, nor is the cap and trade Bill in earshot of passing the Senate, and every poll is showing the party is heading to defeat if it can’t convince the Republicans to let it pass at least one major reform or initiative.

The Republican strategy — from appearances — is just say no. The Senate’s procedural filibuster rule has been used to block legislation more in the past year than during the entire 1950s and ’60s combined. And it’s working.

The party now has climbed to a statistically insignificant lead over Democrats in polls, and Democrat senators up for re-election in November are dropping out in droves amid voter dissatisfaction. Just 34% think the current bunch deserve to be re-elected.

Even if Obama loses the high moral ground with his liberal base, the White House is banking on his nuclear solution winning over the centre and forcing the Republicans out of their holding pattern. The push will involve $US8.3 billion, create more than 800 jobs and create enough energy to offset 30 million barrels of oil. The White House claims this will be like taking 3.5 million cars off the road.

Nuclear power would help stave off climate change, the beleaguered President said. But his refusal to denounce “clean coal” continues to anger advocates for wind, solar and hydro energy solutions. Further down the scale of public awareness, others had hoped any future nuclear power solution would use thorium rather than uranium.

Vice-President Joe Biden is scheduled to give a major address tomorrow on reducing the US nuclear weapon stockpile, following up on earlier calls by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. US cable channels have already linked the two announcements, suggesting this power push, the first since the 1970s, could inspire rogue nations to claim US hypocrisy over nuclear inspections.

In Australia, Kevin Rudd brushed off the US return to nuclear power, ruling out any shift in the government’s position at a press conference yesterday. The issue polarised the party during its 2007 and 2009 national conferences, but Rudd has successfully kept the fighting away from the public eye.

“People in this country are free to have a debate on anything they want, but I think what they expect from this government is for us just to be clear cut about our policy,” Rudd said. “Our policy is that Australia has multiple other energy sources and we will not be heading in the direction of civil nuclear power.

“The coalition has a policy which I understand embraces that possibility. That’s the difference between the two of us. But on the question of the debate in the community, people will happily debate this until the cows come home.”

In the US, at least, that debate has begun in earnest.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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