Climate Change: A Shrinking President’s Last Chance to Lead?

Proposing rules to slash pollutants is a laudable first step, but Obama’s mission is not accomplished.

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National Journal
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Ron Fournier
June 2, 2014, 5:31 a.m.

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.


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