Obama Reaches for Green Legacy, But Will History Books Agree?

New climate-change regulations could make him the greenest president ever — if he survives the brutal assaults to come.

President Barack Obama waves to the press after stepping off Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn as he returns from a weekend at Camp David to the White House, August 2, 2015, in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Ben Geman and Rebecca Nelson
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Ben Geman Rebecca Nelson
Aug. 3, 2015, 1 a.m.

Rid­ing in his fort­ress of a Ca­dillac that gets just 3.7 miles to the gal­lon, Pres­id­ent Obama knew it was time to go big on cli­mate change.

After his reelec­tion in 2012, Obama rode in “The Beast” with top cli­mate aide Heath­er Zichal com­ing back from a meet­ing at the En­ergy De­part­ment. They were talk­ing cas­u­ally about an en­vir­on­ment­al strategy for his second term, when she found her­self pro­mot­ing the idea that Obama “throw everything he can” in­to a cli­mate plan to guide his next four years.

“His im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion wasn’t, ‘Well, what do you think the polit­ics of that are, or wouldn’t it be hard to do?’ There was no ques­tion,” Zichal re­called. “It was just, ‘That’s a great idea. But we have to go big, and we have to go bold.’”

Monday’s of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of sweep­ing En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency rules that im­pose a first-ever man­date to cut car­bon pol­lu­tion from the na­tion’s coal-fired power plants, by far the largest source of un­checked emis­sions, is the most im­port­ant res­ult.

This is second-term Obama. A pres­id­ent who routinely re­minds people that he nev­er has to run for of­fice again us­ing the power of the ex­ec­ut­ive branch to sidestep an op­pos­i­tion Con­gress to ac­com­plish leg­acy-de­fin­ing agenda items. If Con­gress won’t act on en­ergy and im­mig­ra­tion, the White House will.

But des­pite go­ing far bey­ond his pre­de­cessors on glob­al warm­ing, Obama’s green leg­acy will face ques­tion marks for years. Ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions such as new EPA reg­u­la­tions lack the cer­tainty of the bed­rock en­vir­on­ment­al stat­utes Con­gress passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The par­tic­u­lars of how he’s us­ing the Clean Air Act to de­mand cuts in power-plant pol­lu­tion are al­most cer­tain to wind up be­fore the Su­preme Court. And GOP White House con­tenders, if elec­ted, would seek to dis­mantle or ham­string the rules, which have already emerged as a top tar­get of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

Obama’s green leg­acy is not yet set. He has yet to an­nounce a de­cision on wheth­er or not to ap­prove the Key­stone XL pipeline, which en­vir­on­ment­al­ists bit­terly op­pose, be­liev­ing Key­stone will en­able a surge in car­bon-spew­ing oil-sands pro­duc­tion in Canada. And greens are still un­happy he is al­low­ing Shell to drill for oil off the Alaskan coast in the Arc­tic Ocean.

And an­oth­er leg­acy item awaits: The United States is heav­ily in­volved in ne­go­ti­ations aimed at reach­ing a ma­jor glob­al cli­mate ac­cord at a make-or-break United Na­tions sum­mit in Par­is late this year.

“He really sees this as just an is­sue that just can’t be ducked,” said Dan Utech, a White House ad­viser on en­ergy and cli­mate. “For both today, but also for the sake of his daugh­ters, their kids, and the kids and grandkids of all Amer­ic­ans.”

Obama has talked about how, as an un­der­gradu­ate in Los Angeles, the pol­lu­tion was so bad that “folks couldn’t go out­side.” And he has blamed rising tem­per­at­ures for his daugh­ter Malia’s asthma at­tacks when she was 4.

Of course, the sweep­ing EPA rules wer­en’t the first choice for the ad­min­is­tra­tion. An ex­tens­ive cli­mate-change bill to set up a na­tion­al cap-and-trade sys­tem passed the House in mid-2009 but col­lapsed in the Sen­ate the next year.

Pres­id­ents are of­ten re­membered for sweep­ing ac­tions and bills they signed, like the civil rights and anti-poverty bills that Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son pushed through Con­gress. Car­ol Brown­er, Obama’s former cli­mate-policy dir­ect­or, said Obama doesn’t get the cred­it he de­serves for his step-by-step ap­proach on cli­mate change.

“People don’t see the arc of it. They see each of these acts as isol­ated. But when you put them to­geth­er, they’re ac­tu­ally more than the sum of the parts,” Brown­er said. “It all comes to­geth­er to give you a mag­nitude of re­duc­tion.”

The stim­u­lus Obama ul­ti­mately signed in 2009 would steer some $90 bil­lion in­to low-car­bon en­ergy ini­ti­at­ives and tech­no­lo­gies. An­oth­er big win on cli­mate in his first term: rules fi­nal­ized in 2012 that boost gas mileage stand­ards for cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gal­lon by 2025, a man­date that will make the United States auto fleet much green­er.

Wil­li­am Re­illy, who led EPA un­der Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush, strongly praised Obama for his steps to ad­dress glob­al warm­ing, es­pe­cially in the face of strong op­pos­i­tion from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans. Re­illy cred­its Obama for tack­ling a top­ic that had been “sus­pen­ded as a pres­id­en­tial pri­or­ity for the pre­vi­ous eight years” un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush.

Re­illy cited the big boost in auto mileage reg­u­la­tions as an ex­ample of an ac­com­plish­ment that has re­ceived too little praise. “People have paid too little at­ten­tion to the con­sequences of that,” he said.

Obama’s GOP foes — in­clud­ing the ones hop­ing to suc­ceed him — say the rules will leave a leg­acy of a dif­fer­ent sort: one of a pres­id­ent will­ing to im­pose over­ag­gress­ive green rules that hurt the na­tion’s eco­nom­ic com­pet­it­ive­ness. “The rule runs over state gov­ern­ments, will throw count­less people out of work, and in­creases every­one’s en­ergy prices,” Jeb Bush, one of the lead­ing GOP White House con­tenders, said Sunday.

The cri­ti­cism from Bush and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans un­der­scores a risk for Obama: The prob­lem with pres­id­en­tial dir­ect­ives and in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lomacy, is they can be un­done by who­ever suc­ceeds him.

“The scary thing is that des­pite all of the great things that the pres­id­ent has put in mo­tion, it is very easy for a Re­pub­lic­an to un­ravel those,” Zichal said. “In the same way Pres­id­ent Obama had the ex­ist­ing au­thor­ity to have such a tre­mend­ous reg­u­lat­ory agenda, a [new] pres­id­ent could eas­ily have an agenda to un­wind that.”

In the near­er term, the White House is prom­ising to fight hard to keep the EPA rules in­tact. Mc­Donough last week vowed to “veto ideo­lo­gic­al riders” from Cap­it­ol Hill aimed at thwart­ing the rules. “We will not back down,” he said.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, Obama struck a land­mark cli­mate deal with China late last year. China agreed to have its rising car­bon emis­sions peak by 2030 at the latest. Obama pledged do­mest­ic re­duc­tions of 26 to 28 per­cent be­low 2005 levels by 2025. (U.S. car­bon emis­sions are already down about 10 per­cent over the past dec­ade.) White House of­fi­cials hope the ac­cord between the world’s top two green­house-gas pol­luters will en­er­gize the ef­fort to strike a glob­al pact in Par­is.

If Obama’s mus­cu­lar ex­ec­ut­ive agenda isn’t dis­mantled by a fu­ture pres­id­ent or Con­gress, Prin­ceton Uni­versity polit­ic­al his­tor­i­an Ju­li­an Zel­izer said Obama has earned a spot on a Mount Rush­more of en­vir­on­ment­al pres­id­ents along­side people like Teddy Roosevelt, Lyn­don John­son, and Richard Nix­on (who es­tab­lished the EPA).

“He de­serves a spot in that he has used ex­ec­ut­ive power to deal with this, he has now talked about it, he has come back to a theme that he kind of left be­hind in 2008,” Zel­izer said.

Zel­izer be­lieves, however, that Obama’s heavy fo­cus on cli­mate is too late to make it among the things he’s most re­membered for. “He made a de­cision in terms of deal­ing with what should come first and where he was go­ing to burn his polit­ic­al cap­it­al — on health care, on stim­u­lus,” he said. “Part of that was prag­mat­ic, part of it was a sense of crisis, but he didn’t really tackle cli­mate change un­til now, and it’s late in his pres­id­ency. In some ways, in terms of shap­ing what he’s about and the themes that he will be re­membered for, I think it is oth­er is­sues.”

But Obama, his al­lies say, has al­ways been en­gaged on green en­ergy and cli­mate change from the be­gin­ning.

Just a month after his elec­tion, on Decem­ber 16, 2008, the soon-to-be pres­id­ent met with his trans­ition team in Chica­go to talk about how to handle the fisc­al crisis. Dis­cuss­ing what would be in­cluded in the massive eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus, he told his ad­visers, in­clud­ing Brown­er, “I want a big com­mit­ment to green en­ergy. A big in­vest­ment.”

“He’s been con­sist­ent from the be­gin­ning of his pres­id­ency that he would work on this, that he could use the tools avail­able to him,” Brown­er said. “Cli­mate change is a com­plex is­sue. There’s not a sil­ver bul­let.”

On the policy de­bates, he leaves the par­tic­u­lars up to trus­ted staffers.

“He is def­in­itely en­gaged in the sub­stance de­cisions, but he’s not go­ing to ar­gue in the weeds on a very de­tail spe­cif­ic com­pon­ent of the 111(d) reg­u­la­tion,” Zichal said, re­fer­ring to the new EPA power-plant reg­u­la­tions. “He’s ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted to mak­ing sure that all these reg­u­lat­ory ac­tions line up with his broad­er vis­ion and goals. And then he largely em­powers the people around him that he’s put so much trust in and known for years to help de­liv­er the goals.”

It’s a starkly dif­fer­ent ap­proach than the heav­ily bur­eau­crat­ic pro­cess Brown­er faced as EPA head in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. If she wanted to reg­u­late ozone, she re­calls, “I’d have a big de­bate about wheth­er I should even reg­u­late it. I’d have to ar­gue about the sci­ence; I’d ar­gue about the law. And then they’d say, ‘OK, yes, you should reg­u­late it.’ Then I’d have a second de­bate maybe a year later, about how much I should reg­u­late it.”

With Obama, she said, ad­min­is­trat­ors have much more free­dom to get things done. “He puts his fin­ger on the scale at the be­gin­ning and says: ‘This is im­port­ant. I want you to do this.’”

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