Keystone XL: Obama’s realpolitik moment

President Obama will decide whether to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline in March or April. The pipeline is a system to transport oil from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada to multiple pipelines in the United States.

Not surprisingly the Keystone XL project pits environmentalists against oil companies. Pipeline opponents say that if the president means what he said about climate change being real in his inaugural address and the State of the Union, then he has no choice but to reject the pipeline.

In addition to the global warming concerns, environmentalists also worry about pipeline leaks and spills like the one that happened in Michigan in 2010. Pipeline supporters in the oil industry talk about energy independence and view Keystone as a way to further wean the US off foreign (read Middle Eastern) oil. Supporters also tout the thousands of construction jobs that will be created when building the pipeline – although those estimates are far from being universally accepted as this story and video show.

The president’s decision is going to make one side very unhappy. Simple political calculations might lead people to conclude that Obama will reject the pipeline reward the environmentalists who are among his most steadfast supporters and punish the oil companies that donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the unsuccessful effort to make him a one-term president.

However, such calculations are a bit overly simplistic. For one thing, plenty of the president’s supporters are also strong supporters of Keystone XL. Union, mainly the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, support Keystone.  Union support and money likely played a bigger role in Obama’s 2012 win than did the environmentalist vote. Unions helped to organize in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada, and those organizers want repayment for their efforts and likely view Keystone as a good start.

Black and Hispanic voters were the most loyal parts of the Obama coalition. While minority voters worry about environmental issues in part because they are concentrated in highly polluted areas, environmental issues are not among the top concerns of black and Hispanic voters. Jobs and economic disparity issues head the list. Approving a project that will create a minimum of 20,000 high skilled construction and manufacturing jobs would appear to be of a greater concern for black and Hispanic voters.

Obama probably doesn’t put much stock into what implacable foes such as Ted Nugent say about his urban policy agenda. However, the persistent high unemployment rate and the violence that plagues black and Hispanic communities bother the president a great deal, and I’m sure he’d like to begin addressing both in a second term. The pipeline construction jobs and spin-off jobs created by Keystone XL presents an opportunity for the president to simultaneously address the high unemployment rate generally and the extra high jobless rate for blacks and Hispanics.

The president must also be aware that the Republicans definitely support the Keystone. The newly reelected president who overcame Karl Rove and a host of right leaning billionaires might not be in the mood to play nice with the Republicans. Still, he’s also aware that the good will that comes from approving Keystone XL might make it easier to achieve other second term priorities.

The competing interests among Obama’s allies takes the Keystone XL decision out of the realm of moral imperatives that would argue for the president to reject the project, and place it squarely in the realm of realpolitik. That’s a playing field that is more to the liking of the Keystone XL supporters – at least on this issue. Some of the president’s liberal allies are aware of this and are already preparing for the bad outcome.

That Obama’s practical, realistic side would prevail on this issue should not be surprising. As a leader, the president has been far from a left wing nut. He’s clearly liberal on social issues. However, the list of issues in which Obama choice realism and practicality over ideological purity is long – as supporters of the Public Option, closing Guantanamo, drone strikes and arming the Syrian rebels can tell you.

If Obama chooses to approve Keystone XL, it will likely be the result of the president engaging in a realpolitik balancing act that will find him looking for to salve the bitter wounds felt by his environmentalist allies. In fact, the president might have started laying the groundwork to earn some forgiveness in the aforementioned State of the Union.

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