President Obama's approval ratings are dismal: Just 43 percent of Americans now approve of the job he's doing, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, while 53 percent disapprove. Both represent a career low and high, respectively.
No president is oblivious to such trends, and Obama seems to be responding. He recently took a bus tour through key swing states, and will address Congress this week to explain his new plan for promoting job growth. He's leaning on federal agencies to cut costs, a nod to Republican budget hawks, and has pledged to reduce "regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty."
But in his rush to appease his opponents, Obama is also alienating some important allies. Republican anger has focused on environmental regulations lately — with more than one GOP presidential candidate vowing to "abolish the EPA" — and so Obama has come to treat many environmental issues as sacrificial lambs.
At least that's how environmentalists increasingly see it, especially after the White House announced last week it will abandon its plan to update Bush-era smog standards, a plan many Republicans had criticized as "job-killing." The news came on Friday before Labor Day weekend, during the pre-holiday doldrums when scandals and setbacks are typically revealed in hopes no one will notice.
But environmentalists did notice, partly because the smog rules have already been on their radar for years. Industry lobbyists and GOP lawmakers have long claimed the rules threaten economic growth, while many scientists and health advocates argue they could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health costs. (See this excellent analysis by MNN's Jim Motivalli for more details.)
The retreat also drew attention due to its timing: It coincided with the end of a two-week protest outside the White House over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, another sensitive environmental issue. Author and activist Bill McKibben called it "the largest civil disobedience action so far this century," since more than 1,250 people were arrested. Environmentalists oppose the 1,700-mile pipeline not only because it would encourage wider use of Canada's tar sands, and thus lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, but also because of oil spills. Even the Republican governor of Nebraska has asked Obama to nix the pipeline, citing concerns about the Ogallala Aquifer.
Yet the pipeline still seems poised for approval. The State Department recently issued its final environmental review, concluding Keystone XL threatens "no significant impacts" to the environment. Proponents say it's needed to create jobs and curb reliance on overseas oil, even though most U.S. oil imports already come from Canada.
The Obama administration has yet to reach a decision on Keystone XL, but a thumbs up would fit a pattern: Obama fights for environmental issues when he thinks he can win, but also readily uses them as bargaining chips. In 2009 and 2010, for example, he embraced nuclear power and offshore oil in hopes of winning Republican support for a cap-and-trade bill. The GOP never complied, however, and the Gulf oil spill and Fukushima nuclear crisis later cast doubt on the wisdom of his gamble. And Obama let cap-and-trade die in the Senate even after the House approved it, showing none of the grit he mustered for a federal stimulus in '09 or health-care reform in '10.
To many environmentalists, Obama either takes them for granted or thinks he doesn't need them — but either way, he's losing their support at a critical time. "Many MoveOn members are wondering today how they can ever work for President Obama's re-election ... when he does something like this," Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement about the smog standards. "This is a decision we'd expect from George W. Bush." Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity called the move evidence of Obama's "clear weak record" on the environment, and Yale University's Anthony Leiserowitz told the New York Times it may boost the impression "that he is caving too quickly to Republican pressure." A TIME magazine article this week carried the headline "Is Obama Bad for the Environment?"
Of course, Obama sees things differently. In his official statement about the smog standards, he writes that "the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering." And to be fair, he has made major progress on several environmental issues, including auto emissions, fuel efficiency and mercury pollution. He even personally flew to Copenhagen in 2009, salvaging shreds of agreement at a U.N. climate summit that could have crumbled even more than it did.
But many of Obama's environmental victories have been low-hanging fruit — he wrested long-fought efficiency and emissions rules from U.S. automakers, for example, largely because they felt indebted for receiving federal bailouts. And his trip to Copenhagen didn't do much to reduce global emissions; it just painted a friendlier sheen on climate talks that remain stalled today. When faced with intense political pressure, Obama seems to reflexively look for a middle ground, a strategy that echoes one of his presidential role models. Abraham Lincoln famously said "a house divided cannot stand," and claimed to defeat enemies "by making them my friends."
There's a fine line between compromise and capitulation, however, as Lincoln also understood: "Important principles may, and must, be inflexible." Approval ratings didn't exist in the 1860s, but Lincoln still saw the importance of heeding criticism, especially from those who elected you: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem." And with his public approval at an all-time low, Obama can ill afford to lose the confidence of environmentalists, many of whom haven't lost the hope he promised in 2008 — yet.
As one recent arrestee (and former Obama campaign worker) told the Times after the Keystone XL protests: "If the president decides not to permit the pipeline, he will reignite the enthusiasm many of my friends and I felt in 2008. But if he approves it, it is just human nature that the disappointment will sap the enthusiasm that drove us to work so hard last time."