Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

James Pinkerton Headshot

How the 44th President of the United States, and the 38th Governor of California, Saved America

Posted: Updated:

Expectations were low for the 44th President, elected on November 4, 2008. Having survived a bitter and contentious campaign season, he was not seen as particularly knowledgeable on either energy or environment issues. And so most informed observers expected little change in the doleful status quo in the coming administration--a continuing vortex of increased energy prices, decreased energy security, and increased ecological degradation.

But the new President exceeded expectations in these areas. Indeed, he so astonishingly exceeded expectations on energy and the environment that many experts immediately enshrined him into the pantheon of great Chief Executives. How did "44" do it? He was blessed with a deep understanding of U.S. history, which showed him what had worked in analogous situations in the past. And the 44th President also had decisive help and support from the 38th Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The new President adopted what he called "The Roosevelt Strategy"--as in, President Roosevelt. But which President Roosevelt? There were two, of course: the Republican 26th President, Theodore, and the Democratic 32nd President, Franklin. For his part, the 44th President always insisted that he was referring to both Roosevelts. As he said in early 2009, "Both Presidents Roosevelt were great leaders who looked shrewdly into the future to solve key environmental and energy problems. TR, of course, was the father of the United States Forest Service, and oversaw a slew of environmental--back then, the popular term was 'conservation'--initiatives. He also worked to sustain a healthier population, with bold efforts to improve working conditions and to upgrade the safety of food and medicine. And three decades later, FDR tackled energy issues: He initiated a vast program of energy-producing public works, including the Tennessee Valley Authority. In addition, he started up the Rural Electrification Administration, which helped assure an equitable distribution of electricity across the U.S.A. Those are both great precedents--so why should I choose between them?"

On another occasion, the 44th President emphasized the great geo-strategic vision of the two Roosevelts. "Both TR and FDR saw that this great country would face huge challenges overseas, and so it would have to be ready, militarily and economically. Teddy built the Great White Fleet and sent it steaming around the world in 1907-9. Those battleships surely proved valuable in the World War to come. And as for Franklin, after Albert Einstein wrote to him on August 2, 1939, he put in motion the Manhattan Project, which built the A-bomb. Einstein's prescient letter, outlining the enormous potential of nuclear fission, was written a month before Hitler invaded Poland and more than two years before Pearl Harbor. But during the course of the war, the Commander-in-Chief saw the importance of atomic power, even as he mobilized the entire nation for conventional weapons production, from jeeps to bombers to aircraft carriers. FDR's efforts saved America, and they saved the world." The 44th President then concluded, "And so once again, how could I possibly choose between these two great predecessors? I want to draw upon their joint legacy--all Americans should be proud of both of them." Partisan critics jibed at such deliberate ambiguity, but the public loved it. The public didn't care about such red-blue distinctions; the public wanted problems solved.

But as the 44th President also said, many times, no leader can function by himself. And in particular, 44 made one brilliant appointment: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-entrepreneur-turned-politician was similarly ambiguous about his political inspirations and choices. As a young man he was an admirer of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy; indeed, he married into the Kennedy family. But Schwarzenegger nevertheless became a moderate Republican with an interest in a wide range of issues--and a flair for popularizing them. In 1990, for example, President George H.W. Bush appointed him Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. From that post, he dramatically raised the profile of exercise as a public health issue, even holding "Great American Workout" events on the White House lawn, with the President and First Lady in attendance.

Elected to the California Statehouse in 2003, Schwarzenegger governed the Golden State in a "post-partisan" manner that infuriated the ideological and political extremes, but delighted most Californians; he was elected and then re-elected by huge landslides. Indeed, his gubernatorial team reflected the transcending centrism that he embodied, albeit sometimes through the mechanism of cancelling out: His chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, was an out-and-out Democrat, while his top political strategist, Steve Schmidt, was an equally determined Republican.

In office, Schwarzenegger had to decide where he might make the most difference. He settled on the issues of energy and the environment, which he saw as logically connected--not only to each other, but to the economic and social well-being of his state. It was a delicate balancing act: The Golden State had a huge green constituency, but at the same time, 37 million people lived and worked and drove on its roads. Working with the legislature, the "Governator" pioneered new ideas for California, including emissions controls, hydrogen cars, and "smart highways."

Forbidden by the U.S. Constitution from seeking the Presidency, and term-limited out of his post in Sacramento after 2010, the foreign-born Schwarzenegger began to think about what he might be able to do next for his adopted country, which had been so good to him. Distinct clues about Schwarzenegger's future emerged on July 13, 2008, when he appeared on ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" and said of his post-Sacramento future, "I'm always ready to help in any way I can. I've committed myself to be a public servant." And then he praised Sen. John McCain for his "great vision in protecting the environment," while adding equal praise for Sen. Barack Obama. When moderator Stephanopoulos asked Schwarzenegger if he would consider an offer to be an energy and environment "czar" in an Obama administration, Schwarzenegger didn't hesitate: "I'd take his call now, and I'd take his call when he's president--any time. Remember, no matter who is president, I don't see this as a political thing. I see this as we always have to help, no matter what the administration is."

In the meantime, all through the 2008 election season, energy and environmental concerns deepened, as crises boiled across oil-rich Eurasia. Closer to home, two prominent figures, Newt Gingrich and T. Boone Pickens, both helped to change the debate through high-profile campaigns to encourage more energy production. And in fact, during 2008, a quiet consensus emerged on the big geopolitical issue of the age: petropower. It was agreed that a big reason why Russia, Iran, and Venezuela were proving so threatening to the world order was the newfound power granted them by their swelling oil revenues. But few Americans wanted war with either Russia or Iran, and so a subtler strategy emerged: reducing the power of rogue "oilocracies" by reducing the value of their oil. If the Russians, Iranians, and Venezuelans had less money, this thinking went, they would have less money to spend on threatening arsenals.

Yet at the same time, Al Gore and others insisted that global warming was also a serious threat; they continued their call for a fundamental restructuring of the world's energy economy. And every headline from the Caucasus region, during the summer and fall of 2008, underscored the wisdom of such a position.

These disparate intellectual stirrings led shrewd observers to espy a possible Grand Compromise between growth and green: As one pundit put it, "More energy, and cheaper energy, in return for cleaner energy--much cleaner energy."

For his part, Schwarzenegger kept his now-familiar political equipoise: He endorsed McCain during campaign '08, even speaking for him at the St. Paul Republican convention, but he never criticized Obama. And with the help of his prominent family, he kept in close touch not only with the Obama camp but also with the Democrats who controlled Congress and would control Congress after the 2008 elections.

Schwarzenegger had a basic confidence that the post-partisan style he developed in California would work well in Washington D.C. and on the national stage. Never known for a stunted ego, the Governor said, "If I lead, people will follow."

But Schwarzenegger also understood that the obvious executive branch policymaking posts in Washington no longer had much clout: The Secretary of Energy, for example, had a little real power, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency had even less. Sure, they had big offices and big staff, but their freedom of action was severely circumscribed by multiple factors: first, the inevitably meddling White House staff; second, a skein of laws, rules, and court orders; third, an immovable bureaucracy that was mostly impervious to top-down pressure--and fully capable of leaking in retaliation for any perceived pressure. And fourth and finally, looming over both DOE and EPA was Congress, determined to pork-barrel and earmark and otherwise power-grab every nickel of funds and every ounce of authority for its own parochial purposes.

So any mandate for true leadership on these issues--leadership defined as making significant positive change in the faltering status quo--would have to include a thorough rethinking of the institutional perch on which the energy and environment czar would sit.

So when the new President-elect called Schwarzenegger just days after the 2008 election, the Governor was ready for a serious discussion. He told the next President, "You can't solve this problem just with conservation, and you can't solve it just with production. You need both. But you need a robust 'both,' a vital-center 'both,' not a mushy 'both.' On these issues, it's unacceptable to have nothing happen, because the extremes on both sides block everything, and then call that sort of paralysis a 'compromise.' That's not compromise, that's defeat. We need to do better, cleaner, smarter."

"Arnold, I agree with you," the soon-to-be-44th President responded. "And I think the stakes now are higher, even, than that. This isn't just about jobs and the environment here at home; this is about the world balance of power. The Iranians and the Russians and the Venezuelans, badly behaved as they are, have received, in effect, enormous pay-raises because of our collective gluttony for imported oil. How can we convince Ahmadinejad or Putin or Chavez that they are on a wrong course when all they see is that their oil and natural gas revenues have tripled in the last couple years?"

The President continued: "I want to change that. I have been reading a book from a decade or so ago by Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, and it details how Reagan and his team figured out how, in effect, to economically blockade the Soviets, driving down oil prices from $40 a barrel when Reagan took office to as low as $10 a barrel. Can you imagine what would happen to Russia and Iran and Venezuela if oil prices fell back down to those levels? And what would happen to Al Qaeda if its Wahabi paymasters all went broke?"

"Arnold, I don't want you to come here and be merely bureaucrat, here for a couple of years and then being run out of town. I want you to be a transformative leader, able to tap into all the talent and wealth and patriotism that this country has to offer, so that we can really do the things I was elected to do here at home: provide good jobs at good wages, plus health care, as well as clean up the environment--and regain the upper hand in our international dealings. I see all these things as connected, and I see you, Arnold, as the key to making all this work."

The President paused. And then, his voice lowering into close-the-deal mode, he ended with, "Will you help me? Will you help America?"

Schwarzenegger answered with the solemnity appropriate for the occasion: "Sir, I could never turn you down, and I could never turn America down. We have a lot of details to work out so that the 'Energy and Environment Czar' can truly be effective, but I am confident that, working with Congress, we can get this done."

So the incoming President and the lame-duck Governor, along with their staffs and key Congressional leaders, spent weeks thrashing through the details. How could the Czar post be given the necessary clout? It wasn't easy, because dogmatists on the right and the left considered the Czar idea to be abhorrent. Indeed, something of an alliance was formed between hardcore environmentalists and hardcore libertarians. The hardcore environmentalists, of course, opposed everything, and the hardcore libertarians opposed everything that smacked of increasing government power. So to both, the idea that a Czar could emerge with greater governmental muscle was anathema. But the country was weary of the green-libertarian alliance that had blocked so many new roads and airports, to say nothing of bullet trains and other visionary projects. The time had come, Americans said, to go forward with clean growth, even if that meant the government was involved.

It was easy enough for the conferees to see that the "En & En Czar," as the prospective post was dubbed, would have to have plenipotentiary powers inside the Executive Branch--in the way that Herbert Hoover wielded such power during World War One, or Hugh Johnson during the New Deal, or Leslie Groves during World War Two. But what about Congress?

One bright aide recalled that during the U.S. Civil War, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had consisted of a grand total of seven members. That's right, just seven lawmakers, for both parties in both houses. And of course, Lincoln's Cabinet, the famous "team of rivals," also consisted of just seven individuals. These were manageable numbers. And that was the institutional framework that helped the Union win the war.

In the meantime, as the President-elect worked on his 2009 agenda, Schwarzenegger, still Governor, kept up the pressure from outside the Beltway. In a thoughtful but forceful speech in Chicago, he observed that there were, in fact, five different issues mixing around inside the overall policy bag of "energy and environment." They were: First, lowering prices for energy. Second, reducing the carbon load in the atmosphere, and generally decreasing stress on the environment. Third, moving toward energy security, even energy independence. Fourth, transitioning to sustainability, through greater reliance on renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and, yes, nuclear. Fifth, furthering the belief that we need to change our lifestyle, that we need austerity.

The first four of these concerns, Schwarzenegger said, he fully agreed with. But the fifth, austerity for the sake of austerity--that we must reject. The American people have worked hard, and they deserve to keep the fruits of their labor and make use of those fruits as they see fit. Americans will not stand for an environmental policy that is based on scolding them, or guilt-tripping them. "We will not become Hobbits!" the Governor quipped.

Schwarzenegger reminded his audience that he drove a Hummer--several, in fact. But, they run, he noted, on biodiesel and hydrogen. These were big cars, of course, but whatever he drove, he observed, environmental purists weren't going to be pleased. Nothing short of bicycling Luddism would ever please them. But if we could bring in new clean energy, he argued, motorists would be happy, knowing that they could vroom-vroom to their heart's content and yet still not harm the environment or contribute to the coffers of unfriendly oil-exporting enemies.

So the answer, Schwarzenegger continued, was to unleash government, capitalism, and the American people--all three--on the problem. Let the government set the rules, let entrepreneurship do its wondrous thing, and let the American people pick winners and losers in the new regulated marketplace. Taking special note of environmental concerns about greater growth and energy production, Schwarzenegger suggested the creation of a National Infrastructure Safety Board. NISB, he said, wouldn't just be reactive, like, say, the National Transportation Safety Board, but instead would be proactive. NISB--rhymes with "frisbee," the Governor helpfully observed--would put a new emphasis on securing ports, pipelines, and other projects with greater security against accidents, mischief, and terrorism.

It will be expensive, he declared, but to be blunt about it, that's the American Way: Spend a lot, but make more. Have it your way. People work hard, they get rich, the problem gets solved. It's messy, sometimes, but it works, most of the time. We've done it in the past, he noted, citing the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highways, and the Internet, and we can do it again. "We have a lot of money in this country; what we don't have enough of is security and sustainability. Happily, we can buy that!" Schwarzenegger closed with the ringing words, "We can, we must, and we will!"

The speech was hailed as a masterpiece of explication and explanation. One pundit suggested that the Governor had stumbled onto the wisdom of Alexander Hamilton, the apostle of government-aided economic development. But in fact, there was nothing stumbling at all about Schwarzenegger; he had read Ron Chernow's magisterial biography of Hamilton and had learned its timeless lessons.

After that bravura performance--carried live on cable TV, played big in newspapers and blogs, and endlessly reviewed on YouTube--it became obvious that the 44th President and the 111th Congress would have to find a way to accommodate Schwarzenegger's formidable agenda.

So Schwarzenegger was appointed and confirmed to the post of National Coordinator for Energy and Environmental Policy in February, 2009. Having resigned as Governor of California, he took an office in the Federal Triangle for a five-year term, reporting only to the President and to the new nine-member Joint Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy. Needless to say, the acronym for his exact title, NCEEP, proved impossible, and so Schwarzenegger was simply known as the En-En Czar, which soon simplified itself, in popular shorthand, into "NN Czar."

The NN Czar created his own "team of rivals." His inner circle included a longtime aide, Terry Tamminen, who, to the amazement of many, managed to be both green and pragmatic. Schwarzenegger's team also included Boone Pickens, who moved to Washington to push for the implementation of the ambitious and game-changing energy plan that he unveiled in July 2008. Critics sniped that the billionaire Pickens had an obvious conflict of interest, and that with all his money, he might be able to buy influence. But Schwarzenegger shut them down, saying, "I have plenty of my own money. Nobody buys me. I know where Boone is coming from, and that's why I want him here beside me, where I can keep an eye on him. I want the best, and more to the point, the American people want the best."

The NN Czar was certainly not afraid to take bold action as part of his "Strong and Clean America Action Agenda." Determined to move forward on all fronts at once, he settled the Nevada nuclear waste issue once and for all, thus clearing the way for a massive expansion of safe nuclear power. And at the same time, he "greenlighted" huge increases in solar power, wind power, coal liquefaction, and hydrogen. There were, to be sure, a few disappointments, reverses, and outright failures. But as the President said in reaction to one particular fiasco, "With apologies to FDR, better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of experimentation, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." And so the Strong and Clean Agenda rolled forward.

And out of government-sponsored "skunk works" came remarkable new eco-inventions, such as a process for turning sequestered carbon dioxide into a sturdy solid, so that climate-changing CO2 emissions could be transformed into a useful building material. In 2011, the "Czar-enegger" was on hand for the unveiling of a new carbon pyramid in Illinois, the highest point in the state. Christened as Mt. Daley, the carbon peak, covered with artificial snow in wintertime, proved to be a popular skiing attraction, thus revitalizing the downstate economy. Not to be outdone, folks to the west used their sequestered-carbon bricks to create "The Great Wall of Wyoming," which, they were proud to tell the admiring NN Czar, could be seen from space.

Displaying the same no-nonsense style that he had shown in Hollywood and Sacramento, Schwarzenegger never hesitated to use sticks and carrots to get things done. With one hand, he imposed fines and windfall-profits taxes, and with the other, he granted subsidies and legal immunities. Critics called him everything from a fascist to a Bolshevik to a Mother Earth-despoiler, but Schwarzenegger ignored them, always moving toward his policy goals with Terminator-like determination. As he liked to say, "These problems are bigger than any person, or any party. So we must work together." And then, after pausing for dramatic effect, he would add, "Or else."

And whenever he seemed to hit a roadblock in Washington D.C., he would take his case to the American people. He would travel in his "Green Machine," a solar-powered Hummer, out across the country to stage mass rallies, reminding Beltway insiders that the people were not with them, but with him and the President. "We are not going to let those special interests terminate our effort," he would roar, and the crowd would roar back. The tactic worked.

Schwarzenegger's actions were sometimes popular, sometimes unpopular, but always compelling. And crucially, all his doings were aimed at giving the American people what they craved: clean and abundant energy at lower prices. Indeed, around the world, other oil-importing countries followed the "Czar" model, and so oil prices fell 80 percent during the 44th President's term. The power of Putin, Ahmadinejad, Chavez and other "petrocrats" was undermined, in some cases fatally. And as a crowning achievement, the U.S. rallied the world to enact an overall treaty to limit CO2 emissions--not through the deadening hand of austerity, but through the empowering tool of technology. Revitalized American industry led the world in the export of zero-carbon-emitting power systems. Some we sold, some we gave away, but in the process, millions of Americans found new "green-collar" jobs.

At the end of his five-year term, Schwarzenegger, now in his late 60s, announced that he had finished his work. "We've done what we set out to do," he said in a departure ceremony at Nationals Park, just a few blocks from the Capitol. "The President's 'Roosevelt Strategy' has put us on a course toward a cleaner and more secure future." Then he paused. "I am going home to Caleefornia," he said, deliberately exaggerating his own famously accented pronunciation. He might make a movie, he said, he might dabble in philanthropy, or he might work on more "envergy" projects around the world, using a neologism from his tenure as Czar. But he said, with a Reaganesque twinkle in his eye, he would never be far away. In fact, he said, aiming a sly smile at the President standing next to him on the podium, "I'll be back."

And so the 38th Governor of California, who became the first Energy and Environment Czar, passed into the history books, to be commemorated on coins, stamps, and statues by a grateful nation. His partnership with the 44th President had proved to be an extraordinary blessing to America--and to the world.