When Barack Obama arrived in Washington as a newly elected senator in early 2005, he landed in the middle of an environmental firestorm. Obama had been assigned a seat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee - and the first order of business was the Clear Skies Act. The brainchild of the Bush administration, the CSA was presented as an initiative to reduce air pollution and boost the economy; it was applauded by industry groups, but drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and many Democrats, who said the move would weaken existing clean-air regulations, loosen caps on a range of air pollutants, delay the enforcement of smog and soot standards, and exempt power plants from rules requiring them to comply with modern emission standards.

That put Obama in an awkward position. As a state legislator in Springfield, he’d cultivated a reputation as a staunch supporter of environmental issues; in 2003, he’d been one of just six senators to receive a 100 percent ranking from the Illinois Environmental Council. But he’d also gone out of his way to build ties with downstate Democrats and their coal-belt constituents; months earlier, on the campaign trail, he’d promised Illinoisan miners that he’d fight to defend their interests. Now, on the national stage, Obama found himself pegged as a key swing vote on the Environment committee, and the focus of intensive lobbying from both environmental advocates and representatives of Big Coal. Even the Bush administration sought to twist Obama’s arm, sending Stephen Johnson—shortly to be anointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency—to rally support for the legislation in the economically distressed coal country of southern Illinois. 

In the end, of course, Obama voted against Clear Skies, deadlocking the Environment committee and effectively killing the legislation. For the Beltway environmental crowd, it was a sign that their instincts had been correct; Obama was one of them. “He was pulled in two directions,” says Frank O’Donnell, director of nonpartisan pressure group Clean Air Watch. “But when push came to shove he swallowed hard and sided with environmentalists, knowing that he’d be filleted for it back home.” It was an impression that Obama did his best to cultivate, laughing off the pressure that he’d been under. “He told me that he didn’t go through the effort of being elected to the US Senate just to vote in whichever way was most politically advantageous at a given moment,” recalls Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club. “He said it was an easy vote, because it was clear what was in the public interest.” But Obama also threw himself into winning back the coal miners he’d snubbed, pushing for bankruptcy reforms that would help out-of-work miners in southern Illinois get more of the pay owed to them by defunct mining companies, lobbying successfully for his home state to be chosen as the site for a controversial $1 billion clean-coal project, and voting in favor of a contentious energy bill containing $9 billion in coal subsidies. Later, he went further still, joining Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning to introduce legislation designed to spur the development of coal-to-liquid technology, a filthy, energy-intensive process whereby coal can be converted into diesel and jet fuel.

To some Beltway environmental advocates, Obama’s role in blocking the Clear Skies legislation, and his subsequent efforts to redeem himself in the eyes of coal-belt voters, speak to a tension that cuts to the heart of his environmental philosophy. Obama is among the most liberal lawmakers in the Senate - a genuine progressive with a stellar record on most environmental issues and a fine grasp of the minutiae of the energy debate. But he’s a pragmatist, not an idealist; though generally sympathetic to greens, he tends to cast himself as a consensus-builder rather than an environmental purist. It’s a political style that’s earned him a reputation as a moderate and won him friends on both sides of the aisle, but also one that has left some environmentalists wondering whether a President Obama would prove able to build a broad coalition behind his energy and environmental platform - or would bend too far, and sacrifice his environmental promise on the altar of bipartisanship.

A committed environmentalist, whether he knew it or not

Obama’s environmental education began in January of 1984, a year after he graduated from Columbia University, when he took an $800-a-month position running a chapter of the Nader-inspired New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) on the campus of Harlem’s City College. He’d arrived at NYPIRG’s campus office—a cramped trailer parked on a patch of grass next to the science building—determined to change the world, but unclear about where to begin. “He didn’t seem unsure of himself, but he seemed unsure of where he belonged,” says Alison Kelley, who was a freshman at City College when Obama came to the campus. “You could tell he was driven, but he wasn’t sure what he was driven by.” The 22-year-old organizer began a campaign protesting apartheid, and organized a trip to DC to lobby for higher-education funding. But as time went by, Obama also found himself wrestling with a wide range of environmental issues: mass transit, recycling, pollution from local incinerators and landfills, compensation for victims of toxic-waste exposure.

Those who worked with Obama say the young organizer likely didn’t set out to tackle these issues specifically; instead, he would have found himself steered towards environmental issues by the NYPIRG leadership and by the interests and concerns of the students he worked with. Environmentalism was a core value at NYPIRG in the mid-80s, say former employees, and was, then as now, a perennial hot-button topic for campus activists. “You couldn’t have avoided it in this organization,” says Neal Rosenstein, who was working as a NYPIRG organizer at Stonybrook when Obama joined City College. “Working for NYPIRG was an education in and of itself - you were exposed to a huge amount of environmental issues.” But if Obama came to environmentalism almost by accident, he nonetheless showed a remarkable zeal for organizing students around the issue; over time, he developed such a reputation for his environmental campaign work that students would tease him that he should quit smoking cigarettes because it was “an environmental issue”. (“We all have flaws,” Obama would sigh as he puffed away.)

But while Obama recognized the value of environmentalism as a flag around which to rally the students of City College, and apparently developed a genuine concern for the environmental problems he saw at play in his Harlem neighborhood, he seemed dissatisfied with the reflexive, ideological approach favored by many greens. Instead of focusing on environmental issues in isolation, Obama sought to join the dots, drawing students into energetic conversations about the way that air and water pollution was impacting on the health of the neighborhood’s low-income residents, or about the economic forces that underpinned the problems the students wanted to tackle. “I don’t think he’d have called himself an environmentalist per se,” says Kelley. “He used to say that it was too narrow to look at things that way, because if you do you can’t see the whole picture - and if you can’t see the whole picture, you can’t bring about real change.”

If Obama was beginning to question the sufficiency of environmentalism as an organizing principle, his tactics, though, remained relatively conventional. Letters were written; petitions were gathered and, on a bus trip to Albany, duly delivered to state lawmakers; posters and placards were carefully inked and tacked on walls around the campus. (A faded photograph from Obama’s months at City College shows the young activist—fresh-faced, skinny and sporting the beginnings of a ‘fro—clutching a hand-drawn poster showing a subway carriage sinking beneath shark-infested water, a relic from a NYPIRG campaign for more funding for New York City’s ailing public-transport system.) But it was clear that Obama quickly came to sense the limits of such approaches. “He talked about being frustrated, that he wasn’t moving fast enough,” recalls Kelley. “I don’t think he really saw the effect he was having, so he got antsy.” He read widely, and would hold forth about different theories and models of organizing, about better ways to bring change and to get the job done. In the end, colleagues say, Obama decided that he would not be able to effect real change simply through campus organizing. At the end of the semester, despite pleas from his supervisors—one of whom, tongue in cheek, literally got down on her knees and begged him to stay—Obama quit his job and moved on.

Still, Obama’s time in Harlem had made an impression upon him: by the time he drove his beat-up blue Honda Civic from New York City to Chicago’s South Side, where he’d landed a job as an organizer with a fledgling faith-based group, he was - whether or not he’d have used the word himself - a committed environmentalist. “If you’d asked his views on the environment he’d have spoken as progressively as anyone would have spoken at that time,” says Gregory Galluzzo, a veteran community organizer who trained Obama during his early years in Chicago. In fact, the biggest problem was beating the ideology out of Obama and making him focus on the task at hand. “I’d tell him, God damn it, I don’t want you to talk about environmentalism,” recalls Galluzzo, now director of the Gamaliel Foundation. “I want you to use your ears and not your mouth - get out there and find out what people want, and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do about it.” Galluzzo and others taught Obama to embrace the organizing theories of Chicago radical Saul Alinksy, putting his pre-convictions on hold and conducting scores of interviews - “one-on-ones” - with local residents and community leaders in an attempt to find areas in which their self-interests converged and could be harnessed to create power and to drive communal action.

As Obama trudged the streets, speaking to pastors and residents, he heard the same complaints: joblessness, crime, gangs, and bleak, grinding poverty. He worked to build a frail coalition of local leaders, and met with a handful of faltering successes: improvements to nearby parks, neighborhood cleanups, sponsored career days for young people. And over time, Obama began to focus more and more of his attention on Altgeld Gardens, a shabby stretch of low-rise public housing surrounded by what locals still refer to as the “toxic donut”: a ring of foul-smelling landfills, sewage treatment plants, fume-belching factories and heavily polluted rivers and waterways. To Obama, the neighborhood’s litany of environmental woes mattered less than the simple fact that behind most of the project’s army-green doors lay well-tended households. Nine out of ten of Altgeld’s apartments were still occupied, and the residents still thought of the complex as their home. Here, Obama believed, he could fan the embers of the residents’ self-respect, building a critical mass of support for his organization, and beginning at last to effect real change. 

Obama wasn’t the first to have dreamed of changing Altgeld Gardens for the better. In 1969, longtime resident and mother of seven Hazel Johnson had lost her husband to lung cancer; ever since, she’d been going door-to-door, using index cards to carefully document all of her neighbors’ asthma attacks, dizzy spells and nosebleeds in an attempt to prove that the Gardens’ filthy air was making people ill. By 1982, well before Obama arrived on the South Side, Johnson had founded one of America’s first environmental justice groups and, by gathering data on the problems faced by Gardens residents, had managed to convince local officials to turn down proposed expansions of a nearby landfill and to reject proposals for a new waste incinerator.

Oddly, Johnson doesn’t get a mention in Obama’s recounting of his time on the South Side; still, her one-woman campaign was a far cry from the posters and petitions of Obama’s environmental activism in Harlem, and Galluzzo says the larger-than-life activist made a big impression on the skinny young organizer. “Barack came in and listened to her,” he says. “He was a good organizer, and saw her as a good person to work with.” When a resident came to Obama with a tiny notice published in a local paper showing that asbestos was being removed from Altgeld’s administrative office, he turned to Johnson for advice; together, from Johnson’s living room, the pair planned a bus trip to the Chicago Housing Authority’s downtown headquarters, where a boisterous protest by a group of residents - dubbed “Obama’s army” by locals, at least in Obama’s telling of the story - managed to shame housing officials into carrying out project-wide testing for asbestos. It was Obama’s first major success as an organizer; on the way back from the trip, he wrote later, he felt that he “had broken into a reservoir of hope, allowing people in Altgeld to reclaim a power they had had all along.”
His hubris didn’t last long. A subsequent meeting with the CHA director ended in disaster, when angry residents shouted down the official and drove him from the meeting. Workmen did begin to seal off asbestos in the Altgeld complex, but progress stalled when the federal Housing and Urban Development agency denied the CHA’s request for funding for asbestos removal and basic repairs. “You can have the asbestos removed. Or you can have new plumbing and roofing where it’s needed. But you can’t have both,” a HUD official told Obama when he protested the decision. “These are the budget priorities coming out of Washington these days. I’m sorry.” For Obama, it was a lesson in the limits of grassroots activism: a sign that power - real power, power that could be used to effect change - lay further on and further up the ladder. “He could see that the impact wouldn't reach beyond the neighborhood,” former organizer John McKnight, who helped train Obama, told The New Republic earlier this year. “The change he was seeking was bigger.”

The forging of a politician through unlikely ties

A little less than a year later, Obama left Chicago and entered Harvard Law School; and when he returned, he had new ideas about how best to usher in change. “The problem we face now in terms of organizing is that politics is a major arena of power,” he told his former colleagues. “That's where your major dialogue, discussion, is taking place. To marginalize yourself from that process is a damaging thing, and one that needs to be rethought.” Obama hadn’t given up on the grassroots; he continued to teach organizing workshops, and accepted seats on the boards of the Woods Fund and the Joyce Foundation, which amongst other activities fund community environmental campaigns. But he also began testing the waters for a career in politics. In 1992, Obama led a voter registration drive that helped Carol Moseley Braun become the first black woman to be elected to the US Senate; by 1995, he was planning a bid of his own for a seat in the Illinois Senate: “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?” he asked a reporter from the Chicago Reader. “As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer.”

Chicago’s 13th district, where Obama launched his first run for public office, is some distance north of Altgeld Gardens and the “toxic donut” that surrounds it. Obama quickly realized that the people he hoped to represent cared more about crime, education and underemployment than they did about asbestos and air pollution, and he adjusted his campaign’s priorities accordingly. “The area he’d been attempting to organize was not the area he ran in as senator,” says Carol Anne Harwell, Obama’s first campaign manager. “The environment, although important, wasn’t an issue that made our top five - maybe our top ten, but not our top five.” Still, Harwell says, Obama made a point of reaching out to Illinois environmentalists to solicit their support for his campaign. His unique selling point, he explained, was that he could help the predominantly white, suburban environmental movement forge a coalition with the predominantly urban, African-American environmental justice crowd. “I’d never heard of him,” admits Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club. “But he called us up and said he could help us build a broader base of support for clean air and clean energy policies.” The Sierra Club’s state leaders met Obama for lunch, and were impressed enough to give him their endorsement - a useful addition to Obama’s support base as he courted the 13th district’s blend of poor African-American voters and well-off University of Chicago liberals.

Greens say that when Obama arrived in Springfield, he was good to his word. His door was always open to Illinois environmental advocates, who say they were assured of a warm reception when they dropped by. “He was ahead of the curve a lot,” says Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “He’d support good policy sometimes years before we could get a critical majority behind something.” After Obama’s daughter, Malia, was diagnosed with chronic asthma, he began to work with renewed vigor on clean-air issues, pushing for a renewable energy mandate and launching a high-profile campaign to force the state’s coal plants to abide by Clean Air Act regulations - a stand that colleagues remember as a politically risky move. “We’re a very blue state, but we’re not a state that embraces environmental initiatives,” says state representative Elaine Nekritz, who worked with Obama on his clean-air legislation. “Those of us who, like Barack, are out front on air and water and the environment are still on the fringes.” Still, as a state senator Obama remained cautious of those who touted environmentalism for its own sake, rather than as a corollary to health or economic issues. “I’ve hung out with knee-jerk environmentalists,” Nekritz says. “I don’t think Barack was quite that way - he’s more cautious and willing to listen to both sides.”    

In Illinois, listening to both sides meant listening to the coal belt. The black stuff lies beneath two-thirds of the Prairie State’s topsoil - and leaves many of the politicians who pass through Springfield with dirty hands. “It’s mythic in its importance here; it’s part of the fabric and the culture,” says Urbaszewski. “As a politician in Illinois, you can’t avoid coal - it’s a balancing act that you have to engage in.” Obama embraced that balancing act, actively seeking out friendships with coal-belt legislators; within months of entering the Illinois Senate, he was heading downstate for a golf tour of coal country. For Obama, who was viewed as an outsider by many of his caucus-mates, it was a welcome chance to build new alliances, and he sealed the deal by giving his backing to a long list of bills designed to give the ailing Illinois coal sector a shot in the arm. In 1997, he voted to divert sales tax revenues into a fund to help reopen closed coal-mines. In 1998, he voted for a bill condemning the Kyoto treaty and forbidding state regulators from seeking to limit greenhouse emissions. (His office later said that he had been opposed to unilateral state-level action, not to emission reductions in general.) In 2001, he backed legislation providing $3.5 billion in loan guarantees for new coal plants that lacked emission-limiting technologies. And in 2003, he supported a $300 million bond issue to help build or expand coal-burning power-plants.

Those who worked with Obama say that despite his pro-coal votes, he never appeared to be in the tank for the coal lobby; rather, he seemed genuinely determined to listen to both sides of the argument and - ever the organizer - to try to find areas where the two parties’ interests converged. “He did a great job in Illinois of balancing the economic factors in the south and the environmental factors up north,” says state representative Dan Reitz, a former coal-miner who worked closely with Obama during his years in Springfield. “He had an open door policy that helped us build a bridge between the environmentalists and the downstate legislators to find something that worked for everyone.” Reitz says Obama’s ability to straddle the ideological gulf between Chicago liberals and the coal crowd helped him to persuade downstate legislators and voters—and even some in the coal industry—of the merits of his clean-air legislation. By cracking down on coal-plant emissions, Obama argued, the legislature could simultaneously clean up the environment and create a much-needed new market for low-mercury Illinois coal, which over the years had struggled to compete with Western mines. (The legislation ultimately failed to pass, although greens say it helped create the momentum for a new regulatory push by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.)

Not everyone approved of Obama’s efforts to find common ground between environmentalists and the coal lobby. “It’s a very tricky balance, and there are a lot of people who think they’re incompatible,” says Clean Air Watch director Frank O’Donnell. “Politically it sounds good to be for both, but practically speaking it may not be possible.” But Obama’s approach impressed Emil Jones, the Senate’s new majority leader, who had long advocated for closer ties between downstate lawmakers and urban progressives. At Obama’s prodding, Jones began to assign him as lead sponsor on a wide range of important legislation, allowing the young lawmaker to boost his profile and approval ratings across the state. Later, speaking to local radio host and former Chicago alderman Cliff Kelly, Jones explained what he hoped to gain by championing the skinny community organizer from Hyde Park: “Cliff,” he said. “I’m going to make me a US senator.”

It was an unlikely partnership. Jones was a product of the Chicago Democratic machine, more concerned with winning fights than with keeping his hands clean along the way; Obama was a soft-spoken constitutional-law lecturer who preferred building consensus to twisting arms. What’s more, says Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois political science professor who worked with Obama in Springfield, Jones saw little electoral advantage to pushing an environmental agenda. Still, Redfield says, by persuading Jones to act as his mentor and by openly setting his sights on statewide office rather than seniority within the Illinois Senate, Obama was able to secure a degree of leverage with the Senate’s leaders, and to win their support for his clean-air and renewable-energy projects. “If you’re investing in someone, that’s going to make for a different dynamic than the usual leader/rank-and-file relationship,” Redfield says. “They certainly saw Obama as somebody who was going places.”

Their confidence was well-founded; with Jones’ backing, and a support base that now spanned both Chicago liberals and a growing minority of downstate Democrats, Obama’s Senate campaign was soon underway. The would-be US Senator made a point of returning to the coal-belt, where, flanked by mine workers, he pledged that he would ensure that there was always a role for coal in Illinois; but he also made renewed overtures to environmentalists. Hours before delivering the DNC keynote speech that made him a national star and helped him secure a landslide electoral win, Obama spoke at a pro-Kerry rally hosted by the League of Conservation Voters. His words presaged the speech he would give to the DNC: “Environmentalism is not an upper-income issue, it's not a white issue, it's not a black issue, it's not a South or a North or an East or a West issue. It's an issue that all of us have a stake in," he declared. “And if I can do anything to make sure that not just my daughter but every child in America has green pastures to run in and clean air to breathe and clean water to swim in, then that is something I'm going to work my hardest to make happen.” Greens swooned, convinced that in Obama they had found a new and charismatic advocate for their cause.

A practical president

Many of Obama’s early speeches - even those that made greens giddy or sent shivers down the legs of MSNBC presenters - were marked by a tendency to focus on change for its own sake, offering rousing declarations of intent rather than specific policy proposals. As Obama began to contemplate a run for the White House, he knew he’d have to hang red meat on that skeleton and underpin his inspiring rhetoric with a coherent environmental policy. Obama began, in the summer of 2006, with a small coterie of economists, environmentalists and energy-policy wonks; over time, his roster of formal and informal advisers has swollen to at least 500 people, all passing policy proposals up the line to a small team who review suggestions with Obama. Advisers say that Obama will listen to anyone, as long as they’ve got empirical evidence to back up their ideas. “There aren’t any ideological litmus tests before we sign people on,” says Dan Esty, a Yale professor and environmental economist who was a founding member of Obama’s advisory committee. “Obama is a flexible guy who likes to hear views from a lot of different perspectives.”

But while Obama was open to new views, he also had a clear vision for how the components of his platform should add up. Above all, advisers say, he was convinced that it was possible to find a win-win solution to both climate change and America’s energy crisis. “If you go back 15 years, there was a false choice that we could either have environmental progress or economic development,” says Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center and a senior energy adviser to the Obama campaign. “Many of us now believe that’s a false dichotomy - we need both together.” Learner says Obama’s experiences trying to find common ground between clean-air campaigners and coal interests in Illinois had helped him realize, as early as anyone, that a sound environmental policy could actually drive rather than inhibit economic growth. That realization ultimately became the central theme of Obama’s energy and environmental plan, which calls for massive new investments in clean energy with the aim of creating 5 million green jobs while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions and weaning America off foreign oil and fossil fuels.

Obama’s energy plan earned rave reviews from the environmental crowd when it was formally released this August; ClimateProgress blogger and former Energy Department staffer Joseph Romm called it “easily the best energy plan ever put forward by a nominee of either party.” Still, not everyone’s convinced that a President Obama would be able to hustle his proposals through Congress without sacrificing key elements along the way. Obama has already made clear that he wants to build a broad coalition in support of his clean-energy revolution, and made the symbolically important move of hiring Jason Grumet, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, to spearhead his team of energy and environmental policy wonks. “Jason Grumet is a classic example of how Obama wants to approach this,” says Esty. “It’s going to require a bipartisan effort - you see a set of starting-point principles, but then a willingness to be practical and do what’s necessary to bring people together. You can’t drive this agenda forward with a 51-49 vote in the Senate, and Obama’s very clear on that.”

That’s not necessarily good news for greens. During Grumet’s time at the Bipartisan Policy Center, he angered some environmentalists, who felt he was too ready to cede important points to right-wingers in a bid to find common ground. Obama, too, has proven willing on occasion to bow to political expediency - and not just when under pressure from Illinoisan coal interests. He championed federal subsidies for corn ethanol, even as environmentalists were warning that biofuels risked impacting food supplies and might not bring real carbon-emission savings, in an apparent bid to buy himself votes in Iowa. (It worked: he won the Tall Corn State’s Democratic caucuses by seven points, and now has a commanding lead in the state over John McCain, who opposes the subsidies.) Perhaps worse, his efforts to build consensus have sometimes led him to water down important legislation to almost homeopathic levels: two years ago, he diluted measures intended to force power plants to report nuclear leaks in the face of resistance from Senate Republicans and the energy lobby, removing language mandating timely reporting and leaving only vague guidelines for existing regulators. That’s left some environmental advocates worried that once Obama makes it to the White House, he’ll prove too willing to compromise with corporate interests and congressional hard-liners. “We’re definitely concerned - it’s a real danger, and something that climate groups have to be very wary of,” says Ted Glick, co-ordinator of the US Climate Emergency Council, who organized a petition last year criticizing Obama’s pro-coal positions. “Many of us in the climate movement aren’t just counting down to the election - we’ll be continuing to campaign for many months beyond that.”

Esty brushes off such concerns. “Obama is not defining his agenda with any particular focus on what the environmental community would want him to do,” he says. “It’s a uniquely Obama vision of how to go forward - it’ll be attractive across a broad public spectrum, but it won’t be universally acclaimed by the environmental community.” Still, those who’ve known Obama longest remain hopeful that he’ll be able to navigate the challenges that lie ahead. “Community organizers are pragmatists,” says Galluzzo, the South Side organizer who once trained Obama. “It’s not about being an idealist, it’s about moving the agenda forward. You learn politics as the art of the possible.” In the choices Obama has made as he’s progressed from the South Side to Springfield to Washington, Galluzzo sees the same tensions confronted by every grassroots activist: idealism marbled with pragmatism, a readiness to compromise to get things done, a willingness to settle for incremental change. “When Barack Obama becomes president we’ll have an environmental president,” he says. “But will he be a purist on every environmental issue? The answer is no.” Ultimately, Galluzzo says, Obama’s environmentalism is predicated upon an unwillingness to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. The question is whether that will be good enough.

Story by Ben Whitford. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Coal and clear skies: Obama’s balancing act
An investigative report of presidential hopeful Barack Obama's environmental philosophy.