Monday, July 18, 2011

T.R., Obama, and the Environment

This week I drove through at least three national forests created by Theodore Roosevelt--Cache, Unitah, and Wasatch.  T.R.'s interest in protecting public lands and wildlife set him apart from other American Presidents.  During his presidency, he created or expanded 150 national forests. He also put into place more than 50 bird or wildlife preserves, 6 national parks, and almost 20 national monuments.  His attempt to protect these resources, gained him some political enemies, particular in the West and among some captains of industry.  Despite these challenges, he proved himself a great leader.  From the historian Douglas Brinkley, he won the title of the Wilderness Warrior.  

T.R. is quite the contrast to President Obama.  Granted, when Obama is on the campaign stump, I often think I see a T.R.-like passion in Obama, not only for the environment but also many other issues.  However when it comes to the environment, President Obama's actions do not match the spunk of his words as a candidate.

As President, it seems quite rare that Obama even brings up the environment (and getting rarer all the time).  Granted, he likes to talk about green jobs when he talks about job creation, and he did funnel some of the recovery money in that direction.  And, admittedly, some of the agencies in his administration have taken quite firm stances on environmental and resource protection.  Yet, it seems that he is unwilling to own an environmental issue.  He has let the environment slip off the national agenda.  He has not been willing to engage in a public and serious way those who want to roll back environmental protections, delist endangers species, or dismantle the EPA.

I am not expecting Obama to push through climate legislation through Congress (though it would be great if he somehow could).  However, what I do expect is for him to own and stand firm on a subset of environmental issues and not to let others do the leading.  T.R.'s legacy shows that a president does not have to solve every environmental problem to be remembered as a great environmental president:  T.R.'s leadership on resource preservation did little for the polluted cities that characterized urban areas of his time.  So far, Obama's actions to protect the environment do not add up to much.  And, I have a hard time giving him credit for agency actions that he ignores in public.  I can't help but think that T.R. and Obama the candidate would agree with me.  

-- Brigham Daniels

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