Warren said that unparalleled partisanship on Capitol Hill, combined with the increasing power of well-financed special interest groups, has created the trickiest political landscape in more than 70 years. Not even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the iconic Democrat credited with lifting the country out of the Great Depression—could have survived re-election in an era compounded by the pressures of 24/7 news, blogs and late-night comics, he said.
"We have to go back to the 1930s to find anything like these very, very hard times we’re experiencing," Warren said. "Obama has been criticized by all sides. I understand his plight and actually feel sorry for him. He's between a rock and a hard place."
Tanking Economy No Excuse
Vermont activist and author Bill McKibben said he is totally aware of the angst Obama faces while navigating an uneven economy as the 2012 campaign sparks to life. But he expressed little sympathy for the president’s predicament in explaining why the White House should jettison the Keystone XL.
"These decisions are never easy calls for politicians," McKibben said. "This one strikes me as pretty easy. When [NASA climate scientist James Hansen] says mining Alberta’s tar sands is game over for climate change, this really ought to be one you can check off the list."
A few months ago, McKibben put Obama on the spot about the pipeline by rallying the climate troops nationwide to risk arrest at the White House during a two-week sit-in. Last week, he joined hundreds of participants at the State Department's final public meeting about whether the Keystone XL is in the national interest.
"The odds are pretty strong he'll approve it," he said. "But we've moved the odds in the last several months. So, we'll see."
Obama has an obligation to tell the public exactly how many jobs the Keystone XL will generate, he said, compared to how many Americans could be permanently employed by promoting solar panels, wind turbines and other renewables.
McKibben is also upset about the pipeline review process, which he said has been compromised. As proof he pointed to recently released e-mail exchanges between TransCanada lobbyist Paul Elliott—who served as deputy national campaign director during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run for the presidency—and State Department officials.
"It has expanded beyond the point where it's not just an environmental risk,"McKibben said. "It's now a question of political integrity. This is turning into a story about political corruption."
That doesn't pass the sniff test for a president who promised to tackle global warming and lead a transparent government, he said.
McKibben and other activists also are dismayed by the State Department's decision to hire the professional environmental consulting company, Cardno ENTRIX—a major TransCanada client—to assess the environmental impact of the Keystone XL.
"All of this shows that the State Department is cheerleading a project they are theoretically reviewing," he said. "That's like hiring Fox & Associates to conduct a study of henhouse security."
Moglen, of Friends of the Earth, said the coalition of anti-pipeline constituencies is perfectly justified in using the Keystone XL as a litmus test for the president.
"They simply will not be able to support Obama if he says, 'Your issues don't matter to me,'" Moglen said. "This president was brought into office by people who thought he was going to do the right thing. If he says he doesn't care about the climate there are going to be implications.
"Inevitably, those politicians get kicked out of office. They spend so much time cutting their roots, they eventually get swept away."
Jilted Greens Should Tread Carefully
Both Warren, the Saint Louis University professor, and Nordhaus, the Breakthrough Institute co-founder, are tuned in to why environmentalists feel jilted by Obama. After every election, hopeful voters are rudely reminded that their candidate has to transition from the poetry of stump speeches to the ugly prose of governing.
Green groups are still smarting from what they see as the president's decision not to prod a Democratic-majority Senate into following the House's 2009 lead and passing a cap-and-trade emissions bill.
More recently, Obama caved in to the anti-regulatory Tea Party element of the GOP by delaying action on smog standards, and the Environmental Protection Agency delayed some rules on regulating heat-trapping gases and other harmful pollutants from large emitters. Just last week, the House passed a bill designed to prevent the EPA from enacting clean-air safeguards for cement plants.
But Nordhaus warns that by making the Keystone XL their signature issue, pipeline naysayers could become an expendable fringe constituency in 2012. Obama won't necessarily take them for granted—but he also might realize that he doesn't have to appease them.