Realpolitik and Thomas Friedman’s Keystone XL Pipe(line) dream

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke to NPR’s Neal Conan  about President Obama’s likely decision to disappoint environmentalists by approving the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Obama is not the anti-business socialist portrayed by his opponents. He’s been a mainstream politician on economic issues such as Keystone, and executive power issues like the use of drones. He’s going weigh the competing claims, balance  the scientific, environmental and economic issues and make a decision.

That decision will be an exercise in realpolitik that will make the oil companies that worked hard to defeat Obama and  the unions who worked equally hard to seal the president’s reelection very happy.

Some  unrelated factors  tilt the scales in favor of Obama approving Keystone. The fragile economy  alternates between gaining momentum and stalling out as this weeks jobless claims and durable goods numbers show.  Obama would like to build on the momentum and a few thousand construction jobs won’t hurt .

Obama is also looking at his approval numbers. He’s lost the post election bounce due to the scrum with the Republicans over the sequester, the budget and the debt limit. Maybe Obama figures that approving the pipeline will prove that his charm offensive is real.

Once he approves the pipeline, Obama knows that he must make tangible moves to appease his bitterly disappointed environmental supporters. This was the point of Friedman’s March 10 column in the Times and his discussion with Conan.

Friedman wants Obama to reject the proposal. However, his column and NPR appearance made clear that the writer is already looking ahead to future fights on the green front. Friedman called on the environmental lobby to do the same. Friedman knows that once Obama approves Keystone XL, the president will have to show  that the soaring rhetoric he used during the inaguration was more than a device to send progressive hearts aflutter. Friedman wants the green lobby to stifle their rage and pressure the president to do something substantive that will “discourage the use of carbon-intensive fuels in favor of low-carbon energy.” Friedman appeared to back a carbon tax on NPR.

That kind of flexibility will require a different kind of leadership from the green lobby. These leaders will have to realize the power they have and abandon the talk of betrayal and victimhood that comes so easy to the left. They will need to play the inside game that they’ve earned the right to play after the election. However, they are loathe to play it because that’s what those other guys do.

Ultimately, the way that environmental leaders respond to Keystone confronts them with the same dilemma faced by Democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Do they want to be right, or do they want to win.

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1 comment
  1. Although I appreciate the environmentalists arguments that we need to reduce our oil consumption, the reality is that we are going to be dependent on oil for a long time.

    I wonder how less green the Canadian oil is compared to the Middle Eastern oil supplied to the west given the energy used to transport it and, more importantly, the energy used by our military industrial complex to keep that oil flowing our direction.

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