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Sierra Daily

Sep 08, 2010

Why Health Care and Not Climate?

As we stumble toward the midterm elections, environmentalists might be forgiven some rueful speculation about what might have happened had Barack Obama stuck with his original intention of tackling climate-change legislation before health care. "Energy we have to deal with today,"said then-candidate Obama in the second presidential debate. "Health care is priority number two."

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks rhapsodized about a fictitious past in which Obama stuck with his original plan:

Obama decided to do energy first. The economy was uppermost on everybody’s mind. Americans were wondering where new innovations would come from, what new jobs would emerge. By doing energy first, Democrats were able to spend the entire summer talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains.

As we know, health care came first after all, and by the time the Senate finally took up energy, the Democrats' political willpower had fizzled. "Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions," pronounces Joe Romm in his invaluable blog, Climate Progress. Today Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein both wrestle with the topic, coming to a similar conclusion: As hard as health care was, it was (politically) easier than putting a price on carbon. Health care companies make a lot of money, but their profit margin is a third that of the oil and gas industry. UnitedHealth Group, the top grossing health care company, made profits last year of nearly $3 billion. ExxonMobil, the top oil company, came in at $45 billion. Big Oil is the Big Dog of the American economy. It's hard to blame Obama for taking on the insurance companies first. But when will we ever get another chance at comprehensive climate legislation?

--Paul Rauber

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