When Barack Obama becomes president Jan. 20, promising to bring fundamental changes, his administration will be rooted in pretty predictable geography. Most of the people he’s recruited to run federal agencies and shape important policies are either from the established axis of power (Washington, D.C./New York City/Harvard) or Obama’s home turf in Chicago.
Obama’s high-level appointees, however, do include an impressive assortment of Westerners. That remains true even after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama’s initial pick to run the Commerce Department, withdrew from consideration on Jan. 4, when he couldn’t shake links to an alleged political-money scandal in his state.
If the Senate approves the appointees it has final say on — and if no surprises knock out any more of them — the Westerners recruited by Obama are likely to have a considerable impact, especially on their own home territory.
Obama’s Westerners include:
- Cowboy-hatted Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, 53, who has deep family roots in ranching and decades of experience as a natural resources lawyer, will shift to bossing the Interior Department. It’s arguably the most important federal job in the West. Salazar will be responsible for the vast empire of federal sagebrush, wildlife refuges, national parks and monuments, mining, drilling, grazing, dams, Indian affairs and endangered species.
- Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, 60, who’s been running the nation’s top clean-energy research lab — the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California — will take charge of the massive Energy Department, a key position for addressing the fossil fuels=climate change crisis through clean-energy development.
- Environmental Defense Fund board member Jane Lubchenco, 61, who’s been a marine ecologist and climate researcher at Oregon State University for 30 years, will run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a $5 billion annual budget for conserving fish species, including salmon, as well as climate science.
- The deputy Los Angeles Mayor for water and energy issues, Nancy Sutley, 46, who has previous experience in federal and state environmental agencies, will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She’ll guide many of the agencies and will have Obama’s ear on all environmental issues.
- California Rep. Hilda Solis, 51, who is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Nicaragua and has marched beside janitors as a union champion, will run the Department of Labor. She calls for using federal money to create green jobs that combine environmental goals and stimulating the economy, and has particular interest in helping poor and minority communities.
- Former federal prosecutor and current Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, 51, who’s demonstrated pragmatic competence on immigration and security issues in running her border state, will take charge of the 22 agencies, 250,000 employees and $50 billion annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security.
Most are Democrats, but not all Democrats are happy about the choices. Napolitano’s appointment, for instance, will leave her state entirely in the hands of hard-line Republicans, who control the Arizona Legislature and will take the governorship with the automatic promotion of Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer.
Napolitano stymied Arizona Republicans during her six years as governor by vetoing more than 170 bills on immigration, gun rights, abortion and other issues. State Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Phoenix Democrat, told the Arizona Republic that Napolitano is pursuing "her career above the needs of the state ... her departure is going to be devastating" to liberal causes in Arizona.
Napolitano has the credentials to run Homeland Security, though, with firmness rather than hysteria. In Arizona, she called out the National Guard to reinforce the U.S. Border Patrol against illegal immigration, while opposing the Bush administration’s plan to erect a steel wall along the border. "Show me a 50-foot wall," she said, "and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder." She thinks illegal immigrants who have good records should be allowed to become U.S. citizens, if they go through a vetting process. She’s shown leadership battling terrorism by setting up the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, "considered one of the best regional intelligence-gathering operations … staffed with more than 200 detectives, special agents (and) analysts," according to the Washington Independent.
Salazar is the appointee most embroiled in controversy, because he’s willing to work with a wide variety of interest groups. A fifth-generation Coloradan, he’s served as Colorado attorney general and head of the state Natural Resources Department. In the Senate, he sought to limit, but not halt, natural gas drilling in sensitive wildlife habitat on Colorado’s Roan Plateau. He also backed wilderness deals and called for a cautious approach to developing oil shale. He symbolizes Obama’s commitment to building coalitions — which means compromises. Some see that as a strength, and some see it as weakness.
Many of the big national environmental groups praise Salazar as a reasonable pick for Interior, including Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Earthworks and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He’s also been hailed by an array of industry groups (ranching, mining, oil). Marc Smith, head of the hard-line Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, says, "IPAMS has worked with Senator Salazar for many years and we are confident that he views natural gas development … as an important long-term element in … energy supply."
Salazar promises to push development of wind and solar energy as well as oil, natural gas and coal. Colorado Environmental Coalition director Elise Jones used additional metaphors, telling the Idaho Statesman, "It could be that a centralist like Ken Salazar can get more done because he’s not a lightning rod and he can work with all sides. He’s not going to draw backlash from traditional commodities industries."
Many smaller, less compromising environmental groups — those that favor lawsuits over negotiation — don’t support Salazar. They include the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. They say Salzar’s ties to ranching constitute a conflict of interest on grazing issues. They accuse him of being too soft on reforming mining and enforcing the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. Jon Marvel, head of Western Watersheds Project, calls his appointment "a travesty."
All this is an early indication that Obama’s presidency may deepen the divide between moderate and hard-line environmentalists, especially on public-lands issues in the West. But on other green issues — most notably climate change — there seems to be more agreement.
Taken together, Chu, Lubchenco, Sutley and Solis will likely provide strong, coherent leadership for the transformation of policies on global warming and energy. They will also help restore the government’s scientific integrity, which the George W. Bush administration greatly undermined. Obama says Chu’s appointment is "a signal ... that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."
At a press conference about his promotion, Chu quoted novelist William Faulkner in support of his belief that climate change can be solved: "Man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion, and sacrifice, and endurance." (Faulkner expressed that optimism in 1950, about reducing the risk of nuclear war.)
Lubchenco says scientists should speak out more to shape policies. She’s a former head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." She’s researched the Pacific Ocean’s "dead zones" along the coast, believed to be caused by climate change and pollution, and wants to set up "marine reserves" where conservation is emphasized.
These Westerners’ effectiveness will depend partly on the economy’s condition (terrible at the moment). They’ll also have to learn to work with key Obamans from other regions, such as New Jersey’s Lisa Jackson (named to run the Environmental Protection Agency), longtime D.C. player Carol Browner (Obama’s senior adviser on environment, energy and climate, who headed the EPA under Clinton) and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (named to run the Agriculture Department).
Vilsack will have power over farm subsidies, rural economies and the West’s national forests. He’s expected to take an incrementalist approach, similar to Salazar’s at Interior. He’s already drawn fire from sustainable-ag and organic-food groups for his ties to Monsanto and other Big Ag corporations, and his backing for inefficient corn-based ethanol and Frankensteinlike crop engineering. But some green groups think he could pull off at least a modest reform of federal farm policies.
Vilsack knows a lot about Iowa cornfields and probably not much about national forests. Agencies typically have second-tier appointees in charge of such resources. Those appointees, however, have not yet been announced as this issue of High Country News goes to press.
Meanwhile, Obama has reiterated his campaign promise to appoint at least one high-level Native American adviser for tribal issues, perhaps creating a new position, but has yet to announce any specifics. He’s named seven Native Americans to his transition team, including John Echohawk and Keith Harper, both lawyers pressing Elouise Cobell’s class-action lawsuit against the Department of Interior over mismanagement of oil royalties on reservations. This alone indicates Obama is more sympathetic to Native Americans than other recent presidents.
Bush had his Westerners, too, from Dick Cheney to Gale Norton to Dale Bosworth. Obama’s new crop seems to have been chosen more for pragmatism than ideology, and will steer us in a different direction. Overall, Obama’s Westerners signify the region’s increasing maturity. Many Westerners have long known that our region is home to highly qualified experts, visionaries and entrepreneurs. Now, the rest of the nation will get to meet some of them.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.