Cutting Some Slack

08/19/2010 01:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Environmentalists need to cut President Obama some slack. It is true enough that although he continues to say the right things, his actions have not always matched his rhetoric, and in some instances, to environmentalists' dismay, there has been no action at all. A major disappointment has been the Administration's inability to make progress on climate change. Obama has displayed less than full intensity in prodding Congress to move on that issue.

But some extenuating circumstances exist that soften the criticism of his overall mixed environmental record. Nowhere in recent memory can one find a Washington political atmosphere in which the minority is so single-mindedly determined to bring down a sitting president of the opposite party. Consumed by a thirst for power and ideological animosity towards Obama, the Republicans, virtually in lockstep, have sought to obstruct the president's policies every step of the way. Obama's offers of compromise, no matter how substantial, are rejected pro forma. It is a sorry state of affairs when the opposition party wants the president to fail more than the nation to succeed, and sad to say, the GOP has enough procedural clout in the Senate to delay if not block many of Obama's initiatives.

Given this backdrop, the president's first move was to take what the opposition involuntarily acceded to him and focus on reforms that he was most confident he could get through. Usually, he did not get all that he wanted, but in those instances, he made good sense by defending his actions with the proverbial admonition to "not let the perfect become the enemy of the good."

We should also remember that no one individual, even a president, can singlehandedly change the deeply entrenched political culture of the nation's capital. A president can lead, but ultimately must have the support of a significant number of congressional lawmakers and Washington Movers and Shakers to make serious waves. Obama has yet to enjoy that happy set of circumstances.

While the president deserves a pass to some extent, distinct red flags loom on his environmental horizon. Seeing his low approval ratings on handling the BP Gulf of Mexico spill rise with the capping of the leaking deep water rig, Obama might be tempted to jump the gun and announce that full recovery of the region had occurred. His administration has already given what many environmentalists consider a hasty endorsement of the safety of Gulf seafood pulled from recently oiled waters. That could be a disaster since a premature all-clear signal would deal a devastating blow to the president's credibility (not to mention that of the seafood industry).

He had better refrain from even implying that the oil spill-generated ecological crisis is over. Caution is warranted when the amount of petroleum still in Gulf waters, the environmental and public health impact of chemical dispersants, and the fate of the tiny marine organisms at the base of the oceanic food chain have yet to be determined.

Obama will soon have to ratchet up his campaign to curb greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate the spread of "clean" energy alternatives to oil or be viewed as guilty of perjury. He cannot indefinitely rely on Republican obstructionism as an excuse for failure to get certain things done. If his initiatives are stymied by partisan stonewalling, he should boldly advance his case and let the voters judge who is acting in the nation's best interests.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, now available for pre-order.