Jan. 20, 2009, may go down as the day Barack Obama began to morph from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman. Then again, I’m an optimist.

Why Truman? It’s become a cliché that Obama’s first year offered parallels to Roosevelt’s. Like Roosevelt, he took office facing extraordinary challenges. Not only was the nation’s economy in shambles, but — unlike Roosevelt — Obama faced two wars, an unsustainable healthcare-cost crisis and the foreboding issue of climate change.

Lost in the mainstream media’s blow-by-blow coverage of 2009 is the fact that Obama actually achieved more in his first year than any president since Roosevelt. He made an extraordinary number of promises on the campaign trial. Even more extraordinary: He’s already delivered on a fair portion of them.

That was more true on the environment than it was on most issues. Eco-warriors have been disappointed by some of the administration’s compromises, particularly cradle-to-grave protection of coal. As is typical in today’s conflict-driven approach to current events, however, anger got a lot more attention than achievements.

So, I frankly was surprised a couple of weeks ago when four plugged-in environmental leaders in D.C. told me what they thought of Obama’s first year in office. For the most part, they’re very enthusiastic. The administration quickly boosted auto-efficiency standards and even managed to win buy-in from Detroit (I guess it helps when you own the place). Obama’s stimulus package funded alternative energy, efficiency programs, transit and other moves toward a clean economy — to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.

The most sweeping storyline wasn’t sexy enough for cable TV: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson had her hands plenty full cleaning up the highly questionable favors that were granted for industries in the waning days of the Bush administration, yet she managed to make a lot of progress on other issues. Rolling Stone falls all over itself this week praising Jackson as “the most progressive EPA chief in history.” The article declares that she’s leading the “one agency where the hope and hype of the campaign trail have transitioned seamlessly into effective governance”:

“In her first year on the job, Jackson has not only turned the page on the industry-friendly and often illegal policies of the Bush era, but has embarked on an aggressive campaign to clean up the nation's air and drinking water. Under her leadership, the EPA has sought stricter limits on toxic pollutants like mercury, moved to scrub emissions of arsenic and heavy metals from coal-fired plants, and revoked a permit for the nation's largest mountaintop-removal coal mine.”
Most significant of all, the EPA last month issued a finding that greenhouse gases must be regulated as pollutants. (Obviously, Rolling Stone was just copying what I wrote a couple of weeks ago.)

That’s where we stood last week, when a political earthquake struck Washington. The day before the anniversary of his inauguration, voters in Massachusetts elected a 41st Republican to the U.S. Senate. Now, the media storyline is that Democrats are on the run, to the point that action on climate change — along with the president’s other priorities — will have to be trimmed down considerably, and perhaps compromised into irrelevance.

As if to confirm that, the climate change news that’s drawn the most attention this month was Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s power company-funded effort to neuter the EPA’s greenhouse gas finding. And incoming Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who vocally supported a cap-and-trade bill as a state senator, now shows every sign of towing his party’s obstructionist line on the issue in Washington. That’s significant, because — just as with health reform — he could supply the 41st vote needed to block climate action with a filibuster.

Many erstwhile Obama supporters are excoriating the president for failing to fight the Republicans more vigorously — not just on climate change but on a whole slew of issues. The New York TimesPaul Krugman says he’s “pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama.” Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist and the author of the bestselling book, The Political Brain — was more biting in his disgust for Obama’s conciliatory brand of politics:

“The president's steadfast refusal to acknowledge that we have a two-party system, his insistence on making destructive concessions to the same party voters ... had sent packing twice in a row in the name of "bipartisanship," and his refusal ever to utter the words "I am a Democrat" and to articulate what that means, are not among his virtues. We have competing ideas in a democracy — and hence competing parties — for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.”
Epitaphs on the president’s influence seem a bit premature, however. Jackson’s regulatory finding on greenhouse gases alone makes that particularly true with climate change. While Congress may not pass cap-and-trade legislation, it still seems unlikely to approve measures that would block the EPA’s existing authority.

More broadly, the message of climate change action favors the president — if he chooses to take control of that message. Using a jobs bill to kick-start our transition to clean energy economy is an exceedingly popular idea. In the nine months between now and the 2010 midterm elections, Obama has an opportunity to drill, baby, drill that point home to voters: Do lawmakers — both Republican and Democratic — really want to be cast as the people who carried water for special interests when they had a chance to transform the American economy?

My point is that the administration has an opportunity to approach climate change from a position of strength. The question, as Weston alludes to, is whether the president will use that strength.

Which is what makes me think of Harry Truman. As he began his re-election campaign in 1948, Truman was in a far weaker position than Obama is today. Truman was, to put it bluntly, regarded as a lightweight hack when FDR named him his running mate in 1944, and he’d served as vice president for only a few months when Roosevelt died. Truman presided over the loss of the Democrats’ congressional majorities in the 1946 midterm elections. And his own party spawned offshoot candidacies to his left and his right rather than uniting behind him. Nobody — not even Truman himself — expected him to beat the erudite governor of New York, Thomas Dewey.

But Truman ran a scrappy campaign, placing his foes in Congress on the defensive as “do-nothings.” He pulled out all the stops. He called a summertime “Turnip Day” special session, calling Congress’ bluff that it would pass legislation Dewey said he supported. And on the morning of Nov. 3, he found himself the victorious incumbent, holding up that famous Chicago Tribune banner headline that erroneously declared, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Truman wasn’t that popular in his second term either. But after he left the White House, historians reconsidered his presidency. Since the 1960s, his stock has continually risen — until a C-SPAN poll of presidential scholars last year ranked the unpolished man from Missouri the fifth best president ever. Truman’s signal achievement? The Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe and stave off communism.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a perfectly parallel situation. For one thing, the current president’s challenge isn’t to win re-election; it’s to govern effectively. For another, Obama’s in a far stronger political position than Truman was in 1948.

But combating climate change has a whiff of the Marshall Plan. And, if Obama is to fulfill his promise as a president who does great things, he’ll need to show a whiff of Harry Truman.

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Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com.