Environmentalists are staging a two-week oil-pipeline protest outside the White House to boost their importance to President Barack Obama’s political calculations in the 2012 election season.
But there’s little evidence so far that progressives’ disappointment with Obama’s environmental policies threatens to reduce their turnout on election day, or that it pressures White House officials to make additional concessions to environmentalists during a political season dominated by the public’s demand for additional jobs.
Monday’s colorful, TV-ready protests against the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s oil fields to U.S consumers took place in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House.
The day’s events included 100 peaceful arrests of environmentalists and celebrities, a multi-faith spiritual event in Lafayette Park, press club speeches by environmental leaders, and numerous suggestions that approval of the pipeline by Obama will cost his campaign votes, volunteers and donations. Hundreds of others have already been arrested, and numerous environmental groups have contributed to two weeks of protest.
If Obama approves the pipeline, environmental activist Andrew Driscoll predicted he would not vote to re-elect him. “He hasn’t done anything to earn our vote yet,” said the Massachusetts activist. “The fate of humanity, the fate of the planet” will be determined by Obama’s pipeline decision, he said.
“If he approves it, it will be a huge blow, not only for our future, but also for this administration,” said Elijah Zarlin, a campaign manager at CREDO Action, an Atlanta-based progressive group. The protesters “are the people who are maybe going to vote for Obama, and are the people Barack will lose” if he approves the pipeline, he added.
However, the leadership of the green movement isn’t threatening to break with Obama over this one decision. (RELATED: Gore: Global warming skeptics are this generation’s racists)
Instead, they are balancing their goal of stopping the pipeline with the need to keep their supporters motivated even when the public opposes regulation of job-producing companies, and with their shared desire to avoid the election of a GOP president, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The protests, arrests, caravans and petitions help make the president uncomfortable and reduce the chance that he’ll side with industry interests, said Philip Radford, Greenpeace’s executive director. The movement won’t accept a compromise offer from the White House, but will instead try to defeat the pipeline at the federal, state and local levels, he said. “This will be an embarrassment for the president,” he predicted.
“If the tar-sands pipeline is approved [by Obama], we will be back and our numbers will grow,” said James Hansen, a NASA scientist and political advocate. “For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must find someone who is worthy of our dreams.”
Advocates for the $7 billion pipeline — including labor unions — say it will create 20,000 good jobs and reduce gasoline-price disruptions. That’s a message that resonates with the swing-voting independents that Obama needs to win next November.
Green activists’ importance to Obama’s re-election campaign is boosted by Obama’s losses among other voters, including whites, women, Hispanics and younger voters. Gallup’s daily poll on August 29 already showed Obama’s approval rate at 38 percent, and his disapproval rate at 55 percent.
But the environmentalists’ importance is also offset by their apparent reluctance to abandon Obama, even when he supports policies they dislike.
For example, a monthly survey of 1,000 registered voters by Public Policy Polling shows that Obama still maintains a favorable rating of 87 percent among liberals, and an unfavorable rating of 12 percent, down roughly 4 percentage points from a score of 91 percent and 7 percent in March.
The August poll showed that 27 percent believe he is too conservative, up from 18 percent in March. Roughly 8 percent considered him too liberal in both polls.
The August poll also showed that 86 percent of liberals would vote for Obama in 2012, down only 2 points from 88 percent in a March. Six percent said they were unsure, up from 3 percent in March.
That support is more faithful than conservatives’ support for President George W. Bush, which fell sharply once he pushed a 2007 immigration reform bill that included a conditional amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.
Environmentalists aren’t breaking with Obama in part because they’re lowering their own expectations of Obama’s commitment to environmental causes during a economic trough. “I’m still optimistic he will stop [the pipeline], but I’m afraid he won’t,” said Zarlin.
“Perhaps our dreams [in 2008] were unrealistic,” Hansen told the crowd of several hundred protesters gathered in Lafayette Park, across the lawn from the White House. “It is not easy to find an Abe Lincoln or a Winston Churchill … but we will not give up.”