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Can Obama Go Back to Political Base(ics)?

4 min. read

Cross posted from the Great Energy Challenge blog.

President Obama made a smart move this month by putting the Keystone XL pipeline project into the deep freeze. It had been poor politics for him -- and it would have been even worse policy for the country, especially when you consider the aggressive retooling of our world energy sources demanded by the International Energy Agency findings in its latest World Energy Outlook.

But for the president’s staff, the question that lingers is whether it will relearn what it had mastered so well in 2008 -- that while you have to campaign in the center, your base voters’ enthusiasm matters a lot. Based on articles like this one in Bloomberg Businessweek, about how environmentalists “matter less to Obama 2012,” it certainly doesn’t seem that way. For instance, theBusinessweek article quotes Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt commenting that “[w]hen voters compare Obama’s record with [the Republican candidates for president], ‘there will be no question about who will continue our progress.’”

The problem is, for eco-conscious millennials (the key, according to a new analysis by Center for American Progress political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, to the 2012 election) like former Microsoft executive Jabe Blumenthal, who care deeply about environmental issues and who want to feel that their concerns are being heard at the highest levels, simply asserting that “I’m not Rick Perry” or “I’m not Mitt Romney” won’t work. To the contrary, Blumenthal says in the Businessweek piece, it’s “simply not true” that the specter of Romney, Perry or Gingrich will be sufficient cause for him to open his checkbook to the Obama campaign, as he did in 2008.

Throughout the Keystone XL process, the message from Washington pundits and experts was that environmentalists “will not be happy, but they have nowhere else to go.”  It’s hard to imagine such an arrogant statement being directed at African-American, gay or Latino voters, but the "nowhere else to go” sentiment directed at environmentalists seemed to have taught them it was time to chuck the tradition of patty-cake politics and “principled loserism” they’ve operated with for so long.

The clincher in the Keystone fight was when committed Obama 2008volunteers, donors and staffers started correcting the “nowhere else to go” idea. These Obama supporters recognized that they did indeed have somewhere else they could go: home, And not just on election day, but on all the days between now and then.

In key states such as Colorado, where the green base is a lot of the base, these base voters realized that they could make themselves matter.

I’m still not sure why the White House let things get to the point where supporters had to threaten to withhold their time, money and effort -- all over a boondoggle that wouldn’t have dropped gas prices at all.

To me, the politics around the Keystone XL pipeline were clear from the start. First there were the wildly inflated claims of jobs from an industry with a history of inflating them. And, of the jobs that would have been created, most would have been in states that were politically out of reach for Obama, and many of those would likely have been created after the election. Worse, the project had become a cafeteria line for TransCanada lobbyists, creating apaper trail of revolving door influence-peddling and inside dealing that the media would have acquired and used long into an Obama second term. On top of all that, the president’s approval of this project would have further depressed his base while benefiting an industry that is resolutely opposed to him -- including his arch political enemies, the Koch brothers.

It all leaves me scratching my head. But, hey, as a clean energy advocate, I’ll take the result.

Going forward, there’s an opportunity for the Obama staff to stop confusing the critical task of courting the political center with the ill-advised practice of coddling lobbyists from a hostile oil industry. For the environmental community, there’s an opportunity to not resume the folded-hands, broken-hearted mode so much of its leadership has operated from over the last three decades. It will be interesting to see what the younger environmental leadership -- people like 350.org’s Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, Friends of the Earth’s Erich Pica, and Greenpeace’s Phil Radford -- have shown they aren’t interested in the “nowhere to go” approach. having shown they aren't interested in the "nowhere to go" approach, does to affect its fate.

Topics: Thought Leadership State of the Industry