Why Babbitt's advice to Obama doesn't quite hit the mark


It was constructed as some advice for President Obama, a call to action for the executive branch, “the best, and likely only hope for meaningful progress” on the environment. But former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speech to the National Press Club on June 8 seemed to serve a higher purpose: To educate the press and the public about the legacy of conservation in this country, and to recall how a gang of radically right-wing members of Congress sought to dismantle that legacy in a series of under-the-radar attacks.

“The intent is to chip away,” Babbitt said, “a blow at a time, at the edifice of environmental laws and regulations, avoiding a frontal assault that would call attention to the overall objective.”

It’s by now an old, familiar dance, as old and familiar to Babbitt as it is to anybody paying attention. Western members of Congress posture to eliminate wilderness protection laws, loosen up restrictions on mining and drilling or make more land available for grazing, forcing presidents and their delegates to back away from their lofty conservationist goals or weather a backlash that could blow them out of office. And when they don’t win, they slap new anti-environmental laws as “riders” on important legislation – appropriations bills, budget compromises – and dare the President to veto them.

But Babbitt's contention to Obama -- that President Bill Clinton held fast to environmental principles with great electoral success – is a misleading bit of revisionism that deserves some analysis.

Babbitt admits that he and Clinton succumbed to the rider trick in 1995, when a shrill Republican House majority, “in thrall to then House Speaker Gingrich,” attached a rider to an appropriations bill allowing “salvage logging” in national forests. Clinton didn’t veto, Babbitt says, and regretted it later.

“It was a big mistake,” Babbitt says, “that set off a prolonged and destructive episode in the history of our National Forests.” In its aftermath, “President Clinton vowed to veto any additional anti-environmental riders,” Babbitt claims, adding that “Congress, aware that when the President commands the high ground, he will carry public opinion, backed off.”

But is that really true? Can a U.S. President in the 21st Century stake out a righteous position on the environment and move the public to follow? Maybe it worked for Teddy Roosevelt, who used his own 1906 Antiquities Act – a law that allows the executive branch to declare national monuments without Congressional approval -- to protect 800,000 acres in the Grand Canyon. But if we’re using Clinton as an example, probably not.

Clinton was exactly where Obama is now when he let that logging rider get through – in the precarious third year of his first term. He didn’t all of a sudden start vetoing everything with an anti-environmental rider attached right then and there; in fact, he didn’t explicitly pledge to veto more anti-environmental riders until close to the end of his tenure in 1999, and then only after environmental groups had ridden herd on him for years to do so. Many sops to ranchers and carmakers were tacked on to the 1998 budget bill, including a law exempting certain grazing permit renewals from environmental review.

And Clinton’s own use of the Antiquities Act, the creation of a 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, set off a backlash that reverberates to this day.

That’s not an argument to release the pressure on the Obama administration to do better on the environment, and it’s certainly healthy to shine a light on the legislative machinations of this machination-happy Congress. A lot of post-midterm political capital was spent or salvaged with those anti-environmental riders in the March budget compromise: House Republicans slipped in language nullifying Interior Secretary Salazar’s “Wild Lands” initiative, his move to protect wilderness study areas announced at the start of the year; Montana Senator Jon Tester delisted the gray wolf with a rider, a move that might or might not help him fend off a challenge next year from Rep. Denny Rehberg, a decidedly anti-environment Montana Republican.

But 2011 is a rotten time to hold any president to moral purity on the environment. Elections are won and lost on people’s pocketbooks, and from that perspective, Obama faces a much grimmer fight than Clinton ever did. In June 1995, the unemployment rate was at 5.5 percent, the country had fully recovered from the 1991 recession, and Clinton got the credit for it. If Clinton couldn’t completely fend off the anti-environment fringe during one of the strongest bull markets in history, how can Babbitt expect Obama to do that now, with unemployment at 9.1 percent and economic recovery uncertain?

My guess is that he doesn’t. Instead, he’s staking out a position of environmental progressivism that makes Obama look cooperative and moderate by comparison. The reality, though, is that in most of the country, and most certainly in the West, many people have come to the conclusion that environmental laws hurt their local economies. In some cases that’s actually true; in others, it’s overblown. But public opinion will not be swayed by any presidential moral high ground until the economy improves.

So Obama has a choice: Back down on wilderness protection now, or usher in President Romney  -- or Bachmann or Pawlenty -- in 2012. In the meantime, environmentalists like Babbitt can carry on their battle for the wilderness – on the front lines of public opinion.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at HCN. She writes from California.

Image of Bruce Babbitt courtesy Flickr user The Aspen Institute.

Chris Yoder
Chris Yoder Subscriber
Jun 10, 2011 10:15 AM
What votes will Obama gain if he lies low on environmental/public lands issues? I think Babbitt's point is that those voters who are convinced by the mining/oil/ORV/grazing/sagebrushrebel crowd that environmental protection is not in their interests aren't going to vote for Obama no matter what posture he takes --- whether John Muir clone or silent 'moderate'. Idaho or Utah (or NV, NM. or Mont. for that matter) are going to shift their electoral votes based on environmental actions? In those states close to the balancing point (CO, NM. NV, MT) I would argue Obama has as more to gain than to lose by taking the high road of principled action.
Dr. Raven Feher
Dr. Raven Feher
Jun 10, 2011 12:25 PM
It takes courage to stand up for what is right and kudos to Bruce Babbitt for focusing national media attention on the deliberate systematic destruction of environmental laws and undermining of the Endangered Species Act. The greedy interests that sacrifice our clean air, our clean water, our wild lands, our wolves and sustainable futures for a few bucks are running riot over our government and the will of the people. Obama and his administration continue to buckle under corporate and Republican cronyism. We fought so hard for limited environmental gains. Why does the greed of a few continue to subvert the will of the many? I say, right on, Bruce Babbitt. And wake up, America, fight for our wild lands, our wild creatures, our wolves and sustainable futures. Learn to live simply, so others may simply live. Fight back--organize with like-minded people. Restore America.
James P Lynch
James P Lynch Subscriber
Jun 10, 2011 09:14 PM
The Republican's anti-Obama fervor is so great that it doesn't matter what he does, it'll be deemed to be *bad*. They will vilify him if he comes out for motherhood and the house will pass a law outlawing mothers. You can't negotiate with the current crop of fanatics, not the least reason being that they've been captured by their nutcase fringe aka The Tea Party. You might as well stand up and fight for environmental protections, which mostly benefit those of us with more modest means (i.e. we can't easily move to the next non-polluted homestead).
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jun 11, 2011 03:58 PM
Of course not everyone would agree that the three measures mentioned by former Secretary Babbitt were necessarily anti environmental. Certainly wolf delisting had been advocated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as all of the State Departments of Wildlife involved. The Obama administration and mainstream conservation groups might well consider the delisting an affirmation of science based wildlife management as in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Retrenchment on BLM land designation and fisheries don't seem to be major setbacks when compared the amazing successes already achieved in less than 3 years. In the past Babbitt has worked as a lobbyist, any idea who he's working for now?
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Jun 11, 2011 10:20 PM
Kudos to Bruce Babbitt. What is missing from the dialogue regarding "America's Great Outdoors" is the all the information available regarding the importance of deep Nature connection not only for children but for adults as well as the idea that by devaluing places that still have some hope of remaining as always have been, the government from the President on down devalues human life on some level. Yes we need jobs, but without places to go for restoration and by the President backing down on what he said is important regarding wilderness, he shows that he does not value all that we all depend upon for our lives. Look at the interconnectedness of everything and begin to understand that we can create all the jobs we seem to need, but without water and air and everything hundreds of thousands of jobs created by a President's magic wand will not matter.

All the people waiting for the President to "make it all right" are looking in the wrong place.

Thank you Mr. Babbitt to getting it right and holding the President accountable.

Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Jun 12, 2011 01:34 PM
I questioned the accuracy of entry's assumption: "The reality, though, is that in most of the country, and most certainly in the West, many people have come to the conclusion that environmental laws hurt their local economies."

So I looked for some polling. The most pertinent I found was from Pew polling on regional attitudes of Americans toward global warming. Pew breaks regions into subregions and in the West we have two: Rocky Mountain and Pacific. In 2009 folks in the Rocky Mountain sub-region were indeed less likely than other Americans to believe that there is solid evidence the world is warming - 44% compared to 57% for the nation as a whole. But in the Pacific West 65% believed that there is solid evidence for warming - the highest percentage for any sub-region. Furthermore the swing from belief to disbelief which occurred between the 2008 and 2009 polls was greatest in both of the West's sub-regions (except for the Great Lakes sub-region which was a point higher).

This tells us two things:

1. The standard assumption that the American West is less supportive of environmental protection compared to other regions is not true. While we may have the loudest (and most obnoxious) anti-environment politicians, we westerners are on balance more favorable to environmental protection than Mid-westerners and about as supportive as folks in the South and Northeast.

2. Western attitudes toward the environment are in flux. The battle for the minds and hearts of western swing voters - the New Westerners - is joined; but the result is still up for grabs.

By the way, The same poll tells us that more westerners than folks in other regions favor controls on carbon emissions - 56% favored carbon emissions limits and 35% opposed them; in the US as a whole 50% supported limits and 39% opposed them.

A Rocky Mountain and rural bias still lingers around the fringes of HCN but most westerners have accepted that the Pacific Coast is indeed a part of the American West. We should also realize that the Old West anti-environment attitude to which many western politicians pitch their rhetoric have already become a minority view. The Old West's residual political power may hold sway for a while yet but soon enough New West political power will catch up. And then western politics will really change.

Here's the link if you want to check the polling out for yourself: http://pewresearch.org/[…]/cap-and-trade-global-warming-opinion
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 12:40 PM
Hi Felice --

I'm familiar with (and shocked by) the Pew poll, which shows a decline in people's belief in the reality of climate change that most analysts have credited at least in part with the corresponding economic decline (Warren Olney's "To The Point" show did a whole segment on it yesterday). But in comparing numbers, you run up against a couple of other problems: the Pacific West includes San Francisco and Los Angeles, where I live, a densely populated, politically progressive region where we take few direct economic hits from environmental regulation -- some inland cities balk about clean water regulations, but people aren't losing their jobs en masse because them. Our population definitely skews those numbers. If you talk to people in Klamath Falls, Oregon they'll tell you a different story, but there are fewer of them to tell it.

Also, it doesn't necessarily follow that just because people accept the reality of climate disruption they believe that environmental regulation isn't economically destructive. You'll find academics at UCLA (such as Edward Leamer and Matthew Kahn) making strong cases for how pollution controls have undercut the manufacturing sector in California. Neither of them deny that anthropogenic carbon emissions are changing the climate, but they ask hard questions about how we should be addressing it.

Hal Herring's feature story on wolf delisting talked about how Tester had to push that rider through to keep his seat. I don't know anyone who disagrees with that. A lot of Tester's constituency may fear (and even see the effects of) the changing climate, but it still doesn't mean they want wolves protected.

To Carolyn: You say "All the people waiting for the President to 'make it all right' are looking in the wrong place." I completely agree with that. Presidents are constrained by the number of people they represent -- ask Al Gore why he talked so little about climate change while he held or ran for office (I have!). Bruce Babbitt's own brother Charles told the Phoenix New Times in 1996 that "a lot of the stuff that made environmentalists mad [in 1995] was played against the backdrop of Clinton getting reelected." http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/content/printVersion/163151/

Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 12:45 PM
Here's a poll that speaks more directly to your (and my) point:

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 14, 2011 05:32 PM
The real problem is twofold:
1. Obama isn't that good of a salesperson, but that's the lesser problem;
2. As I know Felice knows, on jobs/regulations/finances, as well as environmental issues, he's selling neoliberal snake oil. I voted Green four years ago and urge others to do the same today. And don't listen to Team Obama's fearmongering about how much worse a GOP option would be.
William Ingalls
William Ingalls
Sep 06, 2012 08:10 PM
How many times can we compromise our health and environment because we feel our economy needs recharging?