America is rejoining the world in the 21st century -- and the world is responding. After a global effort to solve the problem of mercury pollution was repeatedly stalemated by the Bush administration and then almost collapsed of its own weight, suddenly this week it sprang back to life. After seven years of resistance, the U.S. has signaled it wants a treaty and, in the words of U.N. Environmental Program Chief Achim Steiner, everything has changed:
"Only a few weeks ago, nations remained divided on how to deal with this major public health threat which touches everyone in every country of the world," Steiner said. "Today, the world's environment ministers, armed with the full facts and full choices, decided the time for talking was over -- the time for action on this pollution is now."
The change in the U.S. position came in a letter from White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley. Once the Obama administration said it would reverse Bush's recalcitrance, China, India, and other nations also agreed to endorse the goal of a mandatory treaty.
What is most astonishing about this turn of events is not that the Obama administration favors controls on mercury -- you would have expected that. But how, with virtually no one yet in place or confirmed, did the administration manage to get to this issue so promptly? How, indeed, has President Obama managed to maintain an unprecedented level of momentum with almost no one to do the work? Only Friday I talked with one of the undersecretaries-designate, and he lamented that in his department only the Secretary has been confirmed -- so no one else can do any work yet.
I think there's a hidden, and important, back story here. The current skeleton crew of administration appointees cannot be producing this much change this fast. There simply aren't enough of them, even though they're all working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, and are dog tired. So how is this seeming miracle happening?
The secret ingredient, I believe, is that the career civil service was so abused by Bush for eight years that they've been eagerly waiting for the chance to reverse course. And President Obama has shown, both during his campaign and during the transition, a remarkable capacity to get the best out of people by sending them clear signals -- and getting out of their way. This is where the organizer in him becomes so important -- and we're now seeing that he can enlist as allies not only his own team but also the civil service he has inherited and, perhaps, if the way in which the rest of the world rallied around the idea of mandatory mercury treaty, the civil services of other countries as well. All President Obama needs to do is raise an eyebrow, and things start to happen.
It may be a wild but highly productive ride.