Presidential style

  • Ray Ring


Our first president, George Washington, was cautious and reserved. He emphasized honesty and dedication, as well as punctuality. Abraham Lincoln was emotional and reflective, deeply empathetic and driven by his conscience. Teddy Roosevelt had an up-front, in-your-face style and liked to say, "I always believe in going hard at everything."

The personalities of these presidents helped define their impacts on the nation. This is equally true of our current president, Barack Obama. A biracial kid abandoned by his father, Obama attended schools surrounded by rich kids and adults whose backgrounds were very different from his, up to and including Columbia and Harvard. Early on, he learned to please others and adapt to his surroundings, a skill that only improved as he matured. Confrontation is simply not Obama's style; in that sense, he's the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt.

Obama's character comes through in our cover story, which analyzes how his administration is handling key Western environmental issues halfway through his term. Environmental issues have not been a priority for his administration, but they are on his to-do list. Obama often speaks about our "addiction to foreign oil," the "long-term threat" posed by climate change and the need for a "new energy economy." He's appointed more than a dozen professional environmentalists, including some Westerners, to high positions.

HCN Contributing Editor Judith Lewis Mernit doesn't waste time going over ground covered by other journalists: the Gulf oil spill, for example, or climate change bills. Instead, she focuses on this administration's approach to the West -- the region's federal lands and wildlife and the agencies that manage them.

As usual, environmentalists are divided: Some say Obama isn't doing enough, period, while others applaud his accomplishments. We report both views, and also discover areas where the administration is making progress, often incrementally and behind the scenes.

We're weighing in now because presidents spend their first two years working to build momentum, before they try to shift into high gear. President Jimmy Carter raised environmentalists' hopes in the late 1970s when he vowed to reform water policies that emphasized dams, but his efforts fell short. President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt similarly vowed to reform livestock grazing and mining in the 1990s, but achieved only modest success.

Ken Salazar, Obama's Interior secretary, has vowed to reform oil and gas drilling and emphasize wind and solar energy. It's still too early to tell how far Salazar will get, or what the administration's overall environmental legacy will be. But whether or not you agree with any of the environmentalists' positions, it's fair to say that the movement as a whole needs Obama. Since anti-environmentalist Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections, for the next two years environmentalists will rely on the executive branch's actions more than on Congress.

The story of Obama and the West has only begun. High Country News will keep you informed about how this nonconfrontational president's policies work out in our region.

High Country News Classifieds