President Obama is keeping his promise to combat global warming, exerting executive authority via the Environmental Protection Agency to seek to slash carbon-dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by up to 30 percent. He’s tackling one of his era’s biggest challenges. Unfortunately, his political stature couldn’t be smaller.
A tumble of recent events has underscored long-stewing concerns about Obama’s management skills, credibility, accountability, focus and basic interest in leading a sprawling government. Just as these issues crippled Obama’s legislative agenda and tarnished his standing abroad, they can jeopardize his war on climate change.
1. He is a poor manager. Ezra Klein, an Obama loyalist who has tut-tutted criticism of the president’s leadership style, stunned the White House with a hard-hitting column about the Veterans Affairs scandal. Obama’s reluctant acceptance of Eric Shinseki’s resignation “speaks to deep problems in the way this White House views its managers,” Klein wrote. “Obama can be curiously passive when he talks about the failures of the government he runs.” And this: “Obama has flatly failed to restore America’s faith in the government’s ability to do big things well.”
2. His credibility has been hurt by misleading responses to a spate of second-term controversies. Well before the VA scandal, a growing number of Americans questioned Obama’s trustworthiness. More often than not, Obama hurt his credibility in foolishly small ways, such as on Friday when he claimed that scheduling problems were “not something we were aware of” until recently. But as McClatchy reported, “More than a decade’s worth of reports from the VA’s own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office identified the issue repeatedly in dozens of audits, as well as in testimony before Congress.”
3. He is reluctant to hold anybody truly accountable, especially himself. Like Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki lingered on the job long after his ineffectiveness was exposed. The White House defense is that the president won’t be forced by braying pundits to scapegoat a Cabinet secretary and leave the agency without leadership. That may be an admirable sentiment, but it defies reality. First, if an Average Joe was in charge of a project that failed as miserably as the Obamacare website or the VA appointment system, Average Joe would be fired. Second, nobody is indispensable. Just ask Joe. In the space of two sentences on Friday, Obama both feigned and ducked responsibility for the VA fiasco. “In terms of responsibility, as I’ve said before, this is my administration; I always take responsibility for whatever happens, and this is an area that I have a particular concern with. This predates my presidency.”
4. He seems, at times, bored with the job. A Politico analysis of the president’s mindset is filled with revealing nuggets, including this one about a dinner in Rome with a famous architect.
It was such an escape for Obama that the next morning he joked to aides that he was not so pleased to wake up to the reality of more mundane matters. The aides were briefing him for a “60 Minutes” interview about Ukraine and health care. One aide paraphrased Obama’s response: “Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics.”
Presidential confidant and friend Valerie Jarrett has said of Obama: “He knows exactly how smart he is…. He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
5. He puts politics above policy. These two “Ps” are justifiably entwined in any presidency, but Obama needs to be careful not to assume that executive action gives him the flexibility to tilt the balance. For instance, White House advisers tell me that a major part of their rollout strategy is aimed at minority voters, specifically blacks and Hispanics who tend to live in neighborhoods dotted by power plants. These voters, according to Democratic polling, are motivated by the climate change when the issue is framed as a matter of public health. On Saturday, the president traveled to the Children’s National Medical Center to visit children with asthma aggravated by air pollution. Speaking of November’s congressional elections, a senior Democratic official briefed by the White House said, “It’s a base play.” (According to the New York Times, “While studies show climate change may exacerbate respiratory diseases, that is hardly the most significant impact of global warming.”) Among the talking points given to Democratic surrogates last week: Data on the relatively high concentration of power plants in minority neighborhoods.
6. He has squandered enormous potential. In the 17 months I’ve been writing columns, barely a day has gone by without a faithful and leading Democrat complaining privately to me about Obama. Few are willing to speak as publicly and forcefully as Carter Eskew did in a Washington Post column titled, “A President’s Potential to be Great.”
Imagine if Obama had set a different tone before he even took the oath of office? What if he had cancelled all the corporate-funded inaugural festivities, and said, “This is not a time for celebration. Our country is on its back and too many Americans are hurting. We don’t need a party; we need to get to work. Every ounce of energy in my Administration will be dedicated to restoring our financial system and lowering unemployment. There is no other agenda.” Indeed, Obama did bolster the nation’s finances and win passage of a stabilizing stimulus, but too quickly moved on to health care, leaving the impression the economy had been cured, instead of just moving out of intensive care. When the economy sputtered again, his health care initiative, on which he exhausted all his political capital, appeared out-of-sync. Both Clinton and Obama have significant achievements to their credit, but neither fully realized the potential of their presidencies.
Why does all this matter now? While the president can use the EPA to dodge a hidebound Congress, executive action alone won’t curb globe-killing emissions in a serious, durable way. What a president does with a stroke of a pen can be undone by the courts, Congress or Obama’s successor — unless he uses this opportunity to sway new portions of the public about the causes and consequences of climate change.
Obama has said himself, privately, that his job is to shift the debate from whether man-made pollutants are changing the climate to how humanity can reverse and adapt to the trends — to tee up the challenge for his successors. That’s a big job, one requiring the urgent transformation of Obama himself to an effective, transparent and ruthlessly engaged leader. This may be his last chance.