This Guy Is Good!
Shortly after the presidential election of 2008, the evidently prescient Peter Baker of The New York Times wrote
Practically everyone wants to claim Mr. Obama these days. African-Americans, obviously, but also Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans and even white Americans purging feelings of racial guilt. The youth, the netroots, the bipartisan consensus builders, the East Coast elites, the Hollywood crowd. Liberals, centrists and even some conservatives who see Reaganesque qualities. The British, the Germans and other foreigners disaffected with Bush’s America.
“I am like a Rorschach test,” Mr. Obama noted at one point during the campaign. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”
The Rorschach part may fade with the end of the campaign but the test part is here. Reconciling all those different impressions of who Mr. Obama is and what he stands for may prove as defining a challenge as fixing the economy.
It's more than four-and-a-half years later, and figuring out who Mr. Obama is and what he stands for still is elusive. And for many people who ought to know better, he remains a political Rohrshach test, about whom individual perceptions vary widely.
The President addressed the Keystone XL pipeline controversy in his recent speech on carbon pollution by stating
And by the way, it’s certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline. Now — (applause) — I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build the pipeline, the Keystone pipeline that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.
But I do want to be clear. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests.
EJ Dickson noted in Salon "Both opponents and supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline interpreted this statement differently: some said this meant the project would be nixed, while others interpreted it as purposefully nebulous, with the term “significantly exacerbate” giving the president substantial wiggle room to approve the project." Bill Mckibben, head of the environmental group 30.org which has led the opposition to the pipeline, argued If that’s the standard — and it’s a good one — there’s no way the pipeline can be approved. It clearly helps open up this huge pool of carbon to further exploitation."
McKibben clearly is impressed that the President has put the full weight of his office behind a policy that he will act "in our nation's interests." That's not even "in the best interest of the nation," by the way; rather, "in our nation's interests," which may include the interests of the purveyors of non-renewable energy ("interests" as in "special interests").
Call that nit-picking, if you will. But Barack Obama is even more than most politicians very careful how he words anything and everything. The grammatically awkward "in our nation's interests" is no accident, unlike what might happen if the pipeline is built. Further, Obama may decide to claim that, as pertains to approving Keystone XL, there has in fact been a "finding that doing so would" be wise. Brad Plumer explains
Back in March, the State Department issued a draft environmental impact statement finding that Keystone XL wouldn’t lead to significantly more carbon pollution than would otherwise be the case. The State Department’s argument was that, if the pipeline gets blocked, oil-sands producers will just find other routes to ship their product, such as by rail. So the extra emissions will happen regardless. (Other groups, including the EPA, have disputed this analysis.)
While Obama's clever wording on the project has misled McKibben and others, a rhetorical flush elsewhere in his speech has excited some progressives. The President stated
Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. (Applause.) Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. (Applause.) Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.
In response, Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress' climateprogress.org, wrote "In short, become climate hawks, become single issue voters on the issue. Invest in clean energy, divest from dirty energy." Even Chris Hayes, MSNBC's finest anchorperson and along with Rachel Maddow the network's host least likely to be hypnotized by Barack Obama, was moved, tweeting "'Invest, divest' is the most crypto-radical line the President has ever uttered."
Gentlemen, gentlemen. Where in the sentences "invest" and "divest" or in the paragraph in which it appears does President Obama say what people should invest in or divest of? Characteristically, it is President Rorschach giving a nod and a wink to the insider crowd, telling it what it wants to hear: "I am with you." At the same time, he commits to nothing and offends no one or no interest. Moreover, he gets extra points from the left for knocking the "flat earth society" and admonishing it to stop "sticking your head in the sand." It feels so good to have the President of the United States, in patronizing mode, remind those in the know that we're so much smarter than the people who disagree with us.
"Invest" and "divest" is a meaningless gesture from the first black President and former community organizer whom we always have assumed is with us and no doubt a progressive. Then, confident he has retained his base, he continues to govern from the center-right.
That is his prerogative. And it is the prerogative of those on our side always to have faith that Barack Obama will, once he is able, just as soon as the far right lets him, show his good side. But when he finally approves construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, let us for a change not blame it on those those "tea partiers" we sophisticates alternately slam as evil or ignorant.