I skipped the broadcast of President Obama’s second inaugural address in favor of reading it afterwards, so that I could better analyze its content without being distracted by the speechcraft. As an environmentalist, my response is optimistic––though it took some thinking to arrive at that optimism. In his speech, Obama spoke eight fateful sentences devoted to climate change––more time than he spent on any other issue. I don’t have space for the whole eight, but these two give a good sense of it:
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”
My environmentalist response to what I’m dubbing the Eight-Sentence Manifesto has three layers. Had this been Obama’s first inaugural address, it would have been clear from the speech what he was endorsing: Adopt clean power sources that will provide more and better jobs than dirty energy once they are keeping the vast majority of America’s lights on. However, Obama has history in the White House, and some of that history paints him as a very poor environmentalist.
True, he’s got achievements to tout––chief among them his resuscitation of the crippled EPA and his tightening of automobile emissions standards. Unfortunately, those don’t hold up against what’s on the other side: the offshore drilling Obama continues to tout as though Deepwater Horizon never happened; his dithering on the Keystone XL Pipeline that pushed EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to resign in protest; the climate bill he has not passed; the fact that he has declared less protected wilderness than George W. Bush.
Therefore my second layer of response to the Eight-Sentence Manifesto is cynical. I recall that he steadfastly ignored the land ethic during his reelection campaign, despite polls showing that Americans want their air and water clean and their energy not to mortgage their future. I recall that he mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech two months ago, then spent two months dashing my optimism. Most recently, whisperings in Washington suggest that he will approve the northern leg of Keystone XL.
In this light, it’s easy to despair at what seems like hollow rhetoric––but there’s a third meaning to the Manifesto that giving up would overlook. It can also be viewed as a contract. Obama, of his own will, emphasized the planet above any other issue––a decision which, had it appeared in his policy rather than his rhetoric, would have me wishing I could vote for him a dozen times over. In light of his words, he cannot approve the pipeline, nor can he flag on green jobs, ignore the carbon tax, or fail to press for emission reduction internationally.
Well, he can––breaking promises comes naturally to this man. An inauguration speech, though, is different from any other campaign stop or even State of the Union: It has a direct line to history. Obama knew that every issue he mentioned––gay rights, immigration, social justice––was an issue in which he was investing himself. He knows that this term is his last chance to ensure he leaves office with the country better off than when he entered, and that this speech has become his blueprint to do that. Already distrusted by environmentalists, the president will lose even more capital if he raises our hopes before dashing them.
He has raised his own stakes. Previously Obama has risked only unpopularity and the loss of his office. Now he faces the prospect of spending centuries of history known only as a conciliator and a liar. This is the true meaning of the Eight-Sentence Manifesto: the legacy of President Barack Obama is now held hostage to the environmental movement, and it’s never a bad idea to have a hostage. He cannot unspeak the speech, so he must choose between being a liar and a hero. Of the decisions a commander-in-chief must make each day, that’s got to be one of the easiest.