On Nov. 20, UC Berkeley students protested yet another thing: this time, it was the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. A 90-foot inflatable pipeline was involved, and I commend these students for coordinating this impressive demonstration. Yet, proponents of the pipeline aren’t going to change their minds and neither is Obama because these protestors and other opponents of the pipeline aren’t speaking where it counts.
Instead of protesting about social justice and tar sands,
move the area of debate from environmental to political.
At this point, Keystone isn’t an environmental issue needing a political decision. It’s a political issue with an environmental bent. There’s only one decision maker when it comes to Keystone: President Obama. Thus, all arguments made in opposition to the pipeline should revolve around him. Not about the environment, not how many jobs could be created to rescue this economy. These frames can be used to lobby him, but the primary frame should be political. Make this issue matter to him and make the case for why opposing the pipeline is of political benefit for Obama.
**Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Put yourself in Obama’s shoes. The president already knows all the arguments for and against the issue. Yet, he’s not in any hurry to make a decision on the pipeline because the current political climate would have him be the villain no matter which way he sides.
If he approves the pipeline, he would appear to be going back on his campaign promises to make the U.S. energy independent and green. He’d also risk alienating young voters, the segment most opposed to the pipeline, who formed a large portion of his coalition and might not support the Democratic nominee in the next cycle with as much enthusiasm.
If he opposes the pipeline, he would alienate labor unions, who’d be angry at the loss of jobs that would’ve been created from the pipeline’s construction. He’d also betray the coal industry and its workers after campaigning as a friend of coal. Don’t forget, Illinois is a coal state. Many Democrat senators also hail from coal states; stopping the pipeline would hurt his blue allies in the upcoming midterm elections.
But if he does nothing, he risks Republicans co-opting the pipeline approval as a bargaining chip for the next shutdown showdown in February.
Let’s not forget the other things currently on Obama’s plate, the most important of which is a successful rollout of the Affordable Care Act. That’s not going so well, however, and neither is the rest of his legislative agenda. Nearly none of his major policy initiatives are feasible in the foreseeable future with a gridlocked Congress, forcing Obama to increasingly look for ways to complete his agenda without Congress. Keystone, which only requires a presidential authorization for the rest of it to be built, requires almost nothing from Congress in order for him to make a major, symbolic difference.
Speaking of completing his agenda, the importance of checking off as many campaign promises as he can is greater in Obama’s second term than his first. With a presidential legacy on his mind and many decades to hear others talk about it (he’s only 52), Obama has a post-presidential life in the back of his mind. It’s not as a big a factor but it’s certainly a pressure point for our relatively young president.
As such, Obama has been sticking with increasing EPA regulations as his way of tepidly advancing at least one part of his agenda to create some kind of favorable legacy. The EPA, however, isn’t nearly as effective as opposing Keystone is in preserving a green legacy — the next president could easily overturn the regulations, for example. Short of getting a bill through Congress, Keystone is the next best thing for Obama.
To change policy, change the politics. This requires a three-pronged campaign that involves (1) changing public opinion; (2) redirecting money flow around the issue; and (3) crafting well-appointed messages.
The first two are fairly standard concepts common to most cause-oriented political campaigns. Sixty-five percent of Americans remain supportive of the pipeline according to the most recent numbers from Pew. Mobilizing an organized effort to generate more conversation around the negative effects of constructing this pipeline should move that number closer to the 50-50 line. The goal isn’t to get as many supporters as possible; the numbers just need to be favorable enough to provide political cover for Obama. The twin component to amassing public support is directing private money toward electoral politics, such that legislators will be compelled to open debate on the issue. That means tapping more (green and Democrat-friendly) folks like Tom Steyer who have the money and the connections to finance entire campaigns and state referenda.
As for the final leg of this battle plan, I’ve spent this entire post providing an overview of the political landscape around Obama. There are various ways of creating a targeted message to the president depending on one’s reasons for opposing the pipeline, but all parties should center on this message: “Mr. President, stopping Keystone is the best, easiest, most impactful way to fulfill your campaign promise on climate change today. Don’t let this chance pass by.”