usnews The job of being president doesn’t get any easier in a second term, as President Obama is finding out. Key aides get weary, and many leave government. It’s common for fewer new ideas to be generated. And problems have a way of piling up. But Obama still has some cards to play in his high-stakes game of political poker with congressional adversaries and other world leaders.
Illustrating this fact is the Obama administration’s big decision this week to limit global warming by restricting carbon emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, bypassing Congress, announced a rule to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning plants by 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030. The rule is to go into effect after a one-year comment period. States will then be responsible for implementing the restrictions. The rule is likely to be challenged in court, and efforts will similarly be made in Congress to block it.
Obama is portraying carbon emissions as a major public health issue that must be addressed now. “As president, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” Obama said. Referring to asthma and other breathing ailments, he added: “Often these illnesses are aggravated by air pollution – pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change. And for the sake of all our kids, we’ve got to do more to reduce it.”
This decision is causing a backlash in coal-dependent states such as Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia and Wyoming. Opponents of Obama’s policy say he is waging a “war on coal” that will cost thousands of jobs and severely limit many consumers’ options.
Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, argued that the new rule amounts to “death by regulation,” and the result will be that “we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity, if we can get it.” Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who is considered very vulnerable in his bid for re-election in November, said in a speech to the House, “At stake is our economy and the livelihoods of our coal miners, our steelworkers, electrical workers, those who keep our freight trains running, and families and businesses that rely on affordable energy from coal.” The emissions rule will be used in particular by Republicans against vulnerable congressional candidates like Rahall from the Democratic Party who represent conservative districts.
But the decision also has positive effects for Obama. It will increase his popularity among environmentalists, who are a key part of his political coalition and can provide substantial contributions and organizational assets. It will boost Obama’s credibility by allowing him to keep an important campaign promise to fight climate change. And it shows that, despite his low job-approval ratings and difficulty in selling his agenda to congressional Republicans, the president still has considerable power to act unilaterally by using his executive authority.
Obama also demonstrated his ability to act unilaterally in dealing with the ongoing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the story broke, he accepted the resignation of Eric Shinseki as secretary of the department and pledged a housecleaning if the scandal proves as serious as news reports suggest. The VA mess is far-reaching and politically damaging, involving delayed medical treatment for thousands of veterans and a possible cover-up by VA officials. But Obama has shown that he takes it seriously and will act forcefully to correct what’s wrong.
Finally, even though his decision was controversial, Obama acted decisively to approve a deal that involved the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held for five years by the Taliban, in exchange for five suspected Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay. “Regardless of circumstances … we still get an American prisoner back,” Obama told a news conference during his visit to Poland this week. “Period, full stop. We don’t condition that.” He added: “We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health.” Republicans said the swap was illegal and unwise. They argued that it could encourage terrorists to kidnap more Americans and might allow the five Taliban fighters, now in the custody of Qatar, to return eventually to the battlefield.
But the decision showed again that there are still many ways in which Obama can make a difference and that he isn’t ready to fade into lame-duck status just yet.