President Obama recently spoke with New York TImes' reporters Coral Davenport and Mark Landler on his climate legacy. Part of Times' larger series, "The Obama Era" - this second piece, "The Threat to the Planet" is well worth the read.
The piece describes Obama's continued frustration in dealing with this complicated issue:
"Polls showed that few Americans thought of climate change as a high public policy priority, and the percentage of voters who accepted the reality that it was caused by humans had tumbled.
'There is the notion that there’s something I might have done that would prevent Republicans to deny climate change,' Mr. Obama said. 'I guess hypothetically, maybe there was some trick up my sleeve that would have cast a spell on the Republican caucus and changed their minds.'"
But it's fair to wonder why they didn't do more. Anyone reading this from the White House would throw up their hands exasperated saying they did all they could to everyone in earshot. But did they really? When the researchers examine this time period, will they find a number of prime time oval office speeches, or public shaming of Congressmen? Will they find a barnstorming the country to highlight the issue? Will they find press conference after press conference focused on climate and energy?
As I read the Times article, it's hard not to recall Ryan Lizza's exhaustive 2010 New Yorker essay, "As The World Burns," all about the failed senate-led climate bill effort. A reminder that the first term Obama White House really thought it had one chance to get something big done. And it didn't choose immigration, or climate, it choose health care. It's to the historians to decide if that was the correct choice.
The last two paragraphs of Lizza's work have always stuck with me, and they do even now:
"American Presidents who have attempted large-scale economic transformation have always had their efforts tempered—and sometimes neutered—by powerful economic interests. Obama knew that, too, and his Administration had led the effort to find workable compromises in the case of the bank bailouts, health-care legislation, and Wall Street reform. But on climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own.
As the Senate debate expired this summer, a longtime environmental lobbyist told me that he believed the 'real tragedy' surrounding the issue was that Obama understood it profoundly. 'I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,' the lobbyist said. 'Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.'"
As the Times piece concludes, the President himself seems well aware of this as he transitions to post-presidency:
"Mr. Obama said he planned to stay active in fighting climate change in his post-presidential life. During his tour of the wildlife on Midway, he paused to make an improbable remark. 'My hope,' he said, 'is that maybe as ex-president I can have a little more influence on some of my Republican friends, who I think up until now have been resistant to the science.'"