During a Roosevelt Room meeting with his economic-recovery advisers in November, President Obama turned to a top Democratic fundraiser sitting at his arm, a boyish billionaire in glasses who had been making regular visits to the White House to kibitz on policy. "John," Obama said, before a group that included Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, economic adviser Larry Summers and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. "You've got the floor."
John Doerr, 58, seized the moment. For more than a decade, Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, has been going to Washington as an ambassador from the high-tech industry, donating along with his wife about $800,000 to Democrats since 2000 and advancing ideas in education, worker-visa and shareholder-litigation policies. In the past few years, however, Doerr's interests in Beltway policies deepened, as he bet hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital on green-energy start-ups, many of which were seeking federal subsidies and regulatory aid.
And now Doerr, named by Obama as an outside economic adviser, was asking Washington to lend a hand. "We have to change dramatically if we want America to be the worldwide leader in what is going to be the next great global industry," Doerr told Obama and his fellow members of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, or PERAB. Then he presented to the group a multibillion-dollar residential-energy retrofit plan, dubbed Home Star. The plan called for billions of dollars in tax breaks for Americans who buy new windows, insulation or appliances to lower their home energy use. A month later, Obama embraced Doerr's vision, calling on Congress to pass a version of the retrofit plan, along with more federal investment for solar panels and wind turbines. On March 2, Obama traveled to Georgia to pitch Home Star, calling it a "commonsense approach that will help jump-start job creation."
In his first year in office, Obama released White House visitor records, banned most lobbyists from working in his Administration and passed up campaign contributions from registered influence brokers. But as Obama has charted a new energy policy that moves away from the fossil fuels favored by George W. Bush, the White House has retained some of the traditional practices for courting politically important industries and interests. In 2001 an energy task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney hosted dozens of conversations with representatives of the oil, natural-gas and coal industries before producing an energy blueprint loaded with tax breaks and regulatory changes that benefited many of the companies that helped draft the policies. Similarly, Obama's energy gurus rely on advice from campaign donors, lobbyists, corporations, think tanks, unions and environmentalists to help shape policies. Once again, there are questions about whether a new President's approach to energy is a product of Washington's unchanged, pay-to-play culture in which political supporters are offered special access to the policymaking process. "When you have campaign donors on these advisory boards," says Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, "it has the appearance of being an inside special-interest opportunity."
Cheney's task force, which operated almost entirely in secret, produced $14 billion largely for drillers and miners in 2005. Obama's greener advisers have helped produce six times that amount, much of it for the comparatively smaller reusable-energy industry. "The dog finally caught the car," said Dan Reicher, who worked on the Obama transition and helps lead green-technology investments at Google. "We've never seen anything like that from the federal government."
And Doerr has done O.K. too. In the past year, his green-energy companies have received loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, smart-grid contracts funded by stimulus spending and, in the case of one solar firm, more than $100 million in federal research tax credits. At a forum in November, Doerr, who generally casts his interest in clean energy as altruistic, did not shade his opinion. "God bless the Obama Administration and the U.S. government," he said. "We have really got the A-team now working on green innovation in our country."