Struggling for Obama's Soul

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Now that we know Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States, we can turn to the next critical question of national leadership: In this historic moment, how bold will President Obama be?

It was Candidate Obama who introduced the theme of change to the 2008 campaign, and it proved so powerful among voters that the other leading candidates quickly adopted it. It’s a cliché for candidates to run against the status quo in Washington, no matter how long they’ve been there. But in 2008, Obama seems to grasp that “change” has a much deeper meaning.

The 21st century is presenting us with new problems that politics as usual can not solve. Pollution, once local and fixable, is permanently damaging the planet’s life-support systems. The world is running out of affordable oil at the same time energy demand is skyrocketing. Because nations don’t yet know how to lift their people out of poverty without fossil fuels, economic development has become a zero-sum game that leads to resource wars. And speaking of wars, the most powerful military force in history has found again that it cannot be assured of winning them, even against enemies with relatively primitive weapons.

Candidate Obama was specific about what he intends to do on many of these issues. His campaign posted positions on the economy, education, energy, ethics, foreign policy, health care, homeland security, the war in Iraq, taxes, veterans, civil rights, national defense, social security and issues of particular concern to women, to name just a few of the planks in his platform. The campaign promised that President Obama would use “innovative approaches to challenge the status quo and get results” on solving “seemingly intractable problems”.

Those seemingly intractable problems aren’t for the faint of heart, or the politically cautious, or for elected leaders who allow themselves to be shackled by their parties. We can expect a struggle for Barack Obama’s soul between those who believe he must be a courageous, charismatic and transformative leader of epochal stature and those who believe he must govern from the center.

In its Nov. 1 issue, The Economist worried that President Obama might allow a “muddle-headed Democratic Congress” to damage the economy. The editors were comforted by assurances from unnamed Obama advisers that “he is a political chameleon who would move to the centre in Washington.”

Let’s hope not. There is a vast difference between a president who leads the nation and one who presides from a political comfort zone that appeases both the right and the left, or offends neither. When it comes to imperatives like controlling greenhouse gas emissions and weaning ourselves from disappearing energy resources, there is no “right” or “left”. There is only backward and forward. And on energy, climate and economic transformation, the challenge for America and the rest of the world is to move forward at warp speed, not with politically comfortable baby steps.

Let’s not mistake leadership with accommodation. The new Congress, however it is composed, will not be immune from the money and influence of the carbon lobby. In the final months of the presidential campaign, the candidates’ histories of “reaching across the aisle” became a litmus test of their ability to lead. When the McCain campaign alleged that Sen. Obama had never sought accommodation with Republicans in the Senate, the Obama campaign felt compelled to respond that “Senator Obama has reached out to Republicans to find areas of common ground. He has tried to break partisan logjams… (and) has accumulated a record of bipartisan success.”

But on the really important issues of our time, where incremental change is no longer enough, “accommodation” to the guardians of the old economy or those who want change in tiny doses, if at all, would be capitulation in search of a palatable synonym.

Let’s be clear about compromise, too. Science is science, not a negotiation. Compromise is an act of facilitation, not leadership. The voters’ desire for leadership appears to be one reason Sen. Obama prevailed over Hillary Clinton in the primaries. A Gallup poll in September 2007 found that three out of four Democrat voters favored the promise of change over political experience (in other words, the ability to play the political game) in their presidential candidates. It probably is a key reason, too, that Obama prevailed over John McCain after he allowed himself to be de-mavericked by the right wing of his party.

At this point in our history, the real test of Barack Obama’s leadership will be his ability to rally the American public around a commitment so indisputably necessary and strong – something akin to the final decision to enter World War II -- that a new majority is born in Congress, compromised of members of both parties who understand the importance of the moment, who grasp that a green economy is the only bright economy, that withdrawal is the only cure for oil addiction, and that climate change is the mother of national security issues. (In addition to these principled members, of course, the new majority will include those pragmatic congressmen and women who know a big parade when it’s about to pass them by, and fear they’ll lose their seats unless they appear to be leading it.)

We need a president who will take us to places our nation has not been before – an enlightened understanding of America’s role in an interdependent world; a radically different economic paradigm based on current solar income and conservation of natural capital; the full embrace of the symbiotic relationship between economy and ecology; unconditional acceptance that in a global economy and global environmental crisis, isolationism is not an option, if it ever was; and the long-delayed recognition that the age of fossil energy has, for all intents and purposes, come to an end. We need a rapid transformation of our values and priorities, as well as our vehicles, buildings, appliances, power plants and urban designs.

The best estimate of the world’s climate scientists and policy experts is that the greenhouse gas emissions from industrial economies must peak and begin to decline around 2015, a mere six years after President Obama moves into the White House. If we want any hope of stabilizing the climate, our energy supplies and our economy, that’s not a negotiable timetable and goal. If there is a way that reversing carbon emissions can be reconciled with more oil drilling and more conventional coal plants, the champions of old carbon economy have not yet explained it.

While he’s dealing with what might be the worst inheritance in presidential history, President Obama will need to prove to the centrists and conservatives in Congress and in his own party that transformation is good politics. He’ll have to turn Blue Dog Democrats into Green Dog Democrats, among other things. For that purpose, his bully pulpit and the lesser pulpits of those who voted for him in the interest of real change may be his most important allies.

To the many veterans of super-bowl politics inside the Beltway, it must seem improbable that this relative newcomer to Washington can handle the challenge, especially if he rejects triangulation and refuses Faustian bargains. But, as President Obama undoubtedly experienced on his long path to the White House, confounding the skeptics is one of the joys of true leadership.

President Obama has all the natural gifts he needs to make his moment America’s moment. The rest of us should encourage him to use those gifts to the fullest as he changes politics and America’s future for the better.

Meantime, for the many people who voted for Barack Obama because he promised to tackle the “seemingly intractable” challenge of establishing a new energy economy, our work – like his – has just begun.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing
a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.

Related article: The 100 Day Action Plan to Save the Planet