WASHINGTON—To hard-core environmentalists, the Obama administration's upcoming decision on the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is black and white. Say no to the Canada-to-Gulf Coast pipeline, they insist, or they won't support Obama's re-election bid.
But judging the president's performance through such a narrow prism could backfire and make these pipeline hardliners politically irrelevant, analysts say, especially when the economy is tanking.
"All you hear about now is jobs, jobs, jobs," Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren  told InsideClimate News. "And this pipeline is going to be painted as a jobs creation issue. It doesn't matter how many jobs will actually be created. In politics, it's about perception. And you're going to get blasted for not allowing it to be built."
Obama came into office as genuinely pro-environment and promising progress, said Warren, a political analyst and pollster for more than three decades.
"Now the greens are putting the squeeze on him," Warren said, "and Obama is saying, 'I know, I know, I know but I can't do what you want me to do with this pipeline. Don't you understand?'"
Evidently not. Claiming it should be a simple decision for Obama, hard-core greens frame the issue like this. Approving the $7 billion project would open a spigot to unneeded dirty fuel and reward the president's bitterest Big Oil enemies, who are intent on limiting him to one term. Rejecting it, on the other hand, would defuse a "carbon bomb " and reignite the devotion of an increasingly demoralized environmental community that raised piles of money and rounded up disengaged voters to help elect him in 2008.
That black and white clarity blurs to a murky gray hue, however, for a president up for re-election in less than 13 months saddled with sagging approval ratings, an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 9.1 percent and a sluggish economy on the verge of slumping back into a recession.
Anti-pipeline forces say those woes are no excuse for Obama to back-pedal on his commitment to action on climate change.
"The president's core constituencies are saying enough is enough," said Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy program at the advocacy group Friends of the Earth . "Again and again and again, we do not see the president standing up for the environment and public health. We will no longer retreat."
Polls show that most Americans support a clean and healthy environment, explained Warren. But when the economy sinks into the doldrums, environmental concerns become luxuries.
"Often, specialty groups are so very narrowly focused that they are not willing to see the broad picture or be sensitive to circumstances," he said. "They are not sophisticated enough to sense the political climate and the realities of the time.
"What can you possibly hope for environmentally during this terrible economy when the top priority is jobs?"
Jobs, Gasoline Prices Top Worry List
Warren's insights resonate with Ted Nordhaus, chairman and co-founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Breakthrough Institute . The independent public policy think tank takes an innovation-centered approach to national and global energy and climate challenges.
"Like it or not, various environmental demands conflict with or are construed as being bad for the economy," Nordhaus said. "As much as Obama may be concerned about his environmental constituency, he obviously is concerned about doing anything that could be construed as hurting the economy."
In addition to jobs, he said, that list of worries includes a particularly incendiary one—gasoline prices. Rightly or wrongly, the motoring public will fume if Obama says no to the pipeline and then prices at the pump rise.
"The Obama administration is in a bit of retreat on energy policies," Nordhaus said. "The message from them right now is, 'Sorry we can’t go there with the pipeline right now.'"
He pointed to how the president and Energy Department are taking it on the chin from Republicans who are questioning the return on federal stimulus investments in green jobs and having a heyday with the investigation of a failed California-based solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million government-backed loan.
Nordhaus finds it especially curious that conservationists have chosen to adopt TransCanada's proposed 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline as a symbol of Obama’s allegiance. One, he said, they haven't offered a credible alternative for weaning the country off fossil fuels, and two, Alberta's oil sands mines will be fully developed whether the diluted bitumen is shipped here or elsewhere.
By drawing a line in the sand over the pipeline, he said, environmental groups risk increasing the perception that they are a "paper tiger."
"I can't see it working out for them," Nordhaus said. "It's hard to see Obama doing what they want him to do because of larger issues with the economy.
"Prospects for Obama's re-election don’t look very good. Strategists can come up with all sorts of cockamamie ideas but macroeconomics are the biggest determinant in whether incumbents get re-elected. Obama will rise and fall with the economy."
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.
While some younger activists have vowed they won’t rally around Obama on the fundraising or get-out-the-vote fronts if he gives the pipeline a thumbs-up, few can imagine them jumping parties to cast their support for the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive officer Herman Cain.
"With nobody challenging him in the primaries, Obama is aware he's the only guy they've got," Nordhaus said. "Successful candidates have to hold on to their base and do well with those in the middle. Obama hasn't figured out how to hang on to his base. At the end of the day, the election coming up will be determined by independent and moderate, undecided swing voters."
Obama's message to environmentalists might just be that he has already expended his conservation capital and it has contributed in putting him on the political ropes.
"The environmentalists have tried to make the battle over the pipeline more salient than it is," Nordhaus said, adding that this is just another pipeline among the hundreds that already crisscross the nation. "Obama has made big bets on what the environmentalists wanted, and it hasn't paid off for him."
By insisting that office seekers pass an environmental purity test, he said, conservationists could end up alienating even eco-friendly candidates.
"If environmentalists are going to keep being disappointed with their champions, then quite frankly those champions are going to say that it's not worth delivering," Nordhaus said. "The costs are too high and there's very little evidence that this constituency can move votes and get people elected in swing districts."