At that point in time, Jackson endured as the champion for disenchanted environmentalists.
Sometime this winter -- I predict in December -- Kerry will play that same role when Obama decides to approve the pipeline.
The response from pipeline proponents, especially Republicans in Congress, will be jubilation. More importantly, approval of the project can only help, not hurt, Democrats up for reelection in 2014, including Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mark Begich in Alaska, who all support the pipeline and have more-conservative energy positions than Obama. But because the decision comes nearly a year before Election Day 2014, it will likely be old political news by the time campaigns kick into high gear.
The reaction from the environmental community, especially the grassroots opposition led by the Sierra Club and 350.org, will be loud and fevered. They will probably have lawsuits waiting in the pipeline (pun intended). But many environmentalists realize it's not the only climate game in town now that Obama has committed to clamping down on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
"For us, the primary thing is to get the largest single sources, which is power plants, and control their carbon emissions," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me last week at Georgetown University while waiting to hear Obama give what was his most substantive speech on climate change as president. "That's the center of the plan. Now the next thing is to get it done."
To the surprise of everyone outside the White House, Obama mentioned the pipeline in his speech. It was a politically savvy move for three reasons: 1) He called out the elephant in the room and thus avoided both criticism from groups like the Sierra Club and the subsequent media coverage of his omission; 2) He took ownership of the issue, showing everyone on every side of the fight he is personally involved; and 3) He shifted the debate over the pipeline from one of economics to one about the effects on climate change.
"Our national interest will only be served if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama said forcefully, prompting loud cheers from the audience of several hundred climate-minded people. "The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."
Environmentalists cheered Obama's new "test" for the pipeline. They maintain that there isn't a way Obama could approve the project since its impact will surely "significantly exacerbate" climate change. People close to the White House read it differently.
"I think it was a clear signal to the Canadians to come to the table and put a good-faith program out there that could provide the kind of net reductions beyond anyone's doubt that would allow Obama to proceed," said a source close to the Obama administration who would speak on the condition of anonymity only.