Will Improving Economy Help Obama’s Case on Keystone?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 12, 2015 · 8:30 AM EST

Events matter in politics and, for a change, they potentially seem to offer a bit of aid and comfort to President Barack Obama in his upcoming battle with the Republican-controlled Congress.

After an impressive across-the-board victory that included a new Senate majority, gains to the party’s House majority and wins at the state legislative level, Republicans are poised to confront the White House over the Keystone XL pipeline.

“As we consider the Keystone jobs bill, let’s keep focused on the real issues at hand: things like jobs for the middle class and reliable energy costs for families,” said new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a recent statement.

Jobs and reasonable energy costs are always good issues to talk about, as is bipartisan cooperation — something else McConnell touched on in his statement.

But with the current unemployment rate at 5.8 percent — the lowest since July 2008, six months before Obama was sworn-in as president — the pressure on the president to sign a “shovel-ready jobs bill” isn’t what it once was.

That isn’t to say Obama can be blasé about the need to boost the economy or create good paying jobs. But the Keystone XL pipeline project simply looks a little different in current conditions than it did when the U.S. economy was contracting throughout much of 2009, and when the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 10 percent that August.

And then there is oil.

It’s one thing to demand for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline when oil and natural gas prices are high and the United States needs to rely on other countries, many of them unfriendly, for its energy. But it is quite another thing make the case for the pipeline when the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil is under $49 a barrel and after natural gas prices plummeted throughout 2014.

None of this is meant to say that the pipeline should or should not be built. But it is worth noting that the post-midterm election political environment isn’t the only thing that has changed recently. The nation’s economic circumstances have changed as well.