The catastrophe unfolding now in the Gulf of Mexico highlights, in a tragic and irrevocable way, is the fatal flaw in President Obama's "Don't Make the Perfect the Enemy of the Good" politics.
By now we have heard Obama recite his favorite platitude (originally from Voltaire) on numerous occasions: when comparing different versions of health care reform, financial reform, and when he announced his support for new offshore oil drilling.
While I still don't believe that [offshore oil drilling is] a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I'm willing to consider it if it's necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan. I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good-- particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
I have always cringed at Obama's Perfect-is-the-Enemy-of-Good mantra. It highlights the contradiction between his two political personas: the inspirational speech maker whose first inclination is to go for the backroom deal. And we have had a lot of these deals now. There was the backroom deal with the giant drug companies that kicked off the health care effort, the constant back-channel back-and-forth with Goldman Sachs, and most recently the support for offshore drilling that seemed to come out of nowhere and actually pissed off some of the very legislators the administration needs to win over to get its overall energy bill passed.
But here's the thing: while this sort of politics always has its pluses and minuses, when environmental issues are at stake it shipwrecks entirely. In health care, "good" might mean 90% of the population gets insurance whereas 100% would be "perfect." But what are we to make of a "good" that includes catastrophes like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico? In what sense is this good?
The same dynamics are at play in the politics of global warming, where "perfect" represents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say would make a difference in the processes of climate change, and "good" refers to emissions that one might win in a political deal but would have little to no consequence for climate change. But meaningless reductions are not "good," nor are consequential reductions "perfect."
This is why politics concerning environmental issues become quickly polarized. The issues do not lend themselves to compromise or political horse-trading. The real world imposes its own parameters for what is meaningful and what is not, and also time frames in which things get done or don't. Once a species goes extinct, it is extinct. It cannot be half-extinct. Its disappearance cannot be delayed until the next election cycle. Global warming will be addressed or it won't. Entire ecosystems get covered in oil or they don't.
For all these reasons, the multitude of environmental crises we now face call for leadership, not deal making. The supreme paradox is that we have a president who has all the tools required to exercise the sort of leadership demanded, and a huge base that is enthusiastically waiting for him to stand up, while the man himself seems just as determined to back down.