The media just keeps missing -- or messing up -- the story of the century.
Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st-century presidents on just two issues: global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn't stop catastrophic climate change -- Hell and High Water -- then all Presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.
How else could future generations judge us if the U.S. and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century's end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent dust bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone -- impacts that could be irreversible for 1,000 years if we don't reverse emissions soon and sharply. This will require an unbroken -- and indeed escalating -- response by our political leadership throughout this century. The same is true for the very important, but still secondary, issue of avoiding the worst impacts of peak oil.
In that sense, what team Obama has accomplished in its first 100 days is nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy forced down the throat of the American public by conservatives. He gets a solid A+. While I will present a longer list below, three game-changing accomplishments stand out:
As an interesting side note, President Reagan, who is held in some esteem with historians these days, will almost certainly be relegated to a second-tier, if not third-tier, president by the painful dual realities of global warming and peak oil. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who put conservatives strongly and permanently on the pro-pollution, anti-efficiency, anti-clean-energy side, where they remain today (see "Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan" and "Why is our energy policy so lame? Ask the three GOP stooges" and "Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh"). It is Reagan, more than anyone else, who put the GOP on the self-destructively wrong side of scientific reality (though Newt Gingrich is a close second).
Since the establishment media doesn't get global warming -- seeing it mostly through the lens of their standard drama- and personality-driven coverage focused on the ephemeral (did Obama "blink" on earmarks, Newt Gingrich faces off vs. Al Gore ) -- and since establishment historians almost by definition focus on the past, the overwhelming majority of "first 100 days" articles you will read are irrelevant exercises in navelgazing. I won't even bother linking to or debunking the spate of stories in today's New York Times or Washington Post Sunday sections -- the only one worth reading is, not surprisingly, Tom Friedman's.
These myopic stories all befit an industry so shortsighted it couldn't even even understand the implications for its own future of the Internet revolution it was reporting on. As but one of many painful examples, here is Joe Klein writing in the normally green-savvy Time, "Sizing Up Obama's First 100 Days":
The fate of Obama's first year in office, if not his Administration, will probably be determined by the way he handles four distinct challenges -- two in foreign policy and two domestically....
And that's the second domestic challenge: the realization that Congress will not give Obama everything he wants. Aides say the President's moments of frustration almost always have to do with Congress. "We know that not every wagon makes it across the frontier," says a top Obama adviser. "But we're not willing to decide yet which wagons are going to make it and which aren't." In fact, that decision seems more and more apparent: Congress is unlikely to pass the linchpin of Obama's alternative-energy initiative -- a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions to combat global warming and tilt the market toward energy independence but that would also raise energy prices in the midst of a recession.
"The wagon that needs to get through is health care," says a second Obama adviser, picking up the metaphor.
Note that Klein, another status-quo establishment journalist like David Broder and Evan Thomas, parrots the standard conservative talking point that Obama wants to "raise energy prices in the midst of a recession," when the cap doesn't even kick in until 2012. Seriously guys, can you think for yourselves?
Note the selective quoting meant to imply that Obama is ready to throw a cap-and-trade overboard to save health care, when anybody who actually listens to any of Obama's major speeches would know how nonsensical that view is -- see In today's big economic speech, Obama reaffirms his commitment to a clean energy economy and strong climate bill: "The only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution"
Obama gets global warming. The media doesn't.
And I'd be happy to take a bet with Klein or anyone else that Congress will pass a cap-and-trade bill before the 2010 mid-term election.
Anyway, let's move from the out-of-touch chattering class to a class in green leadership. How has Obama jumpstarted the one true task of every U.S. President of the 21st century -- preserving the health and welfare of the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth?
Here is a partial list of what Obama has achieved in his first 100 days -- please feel free to add others -- laying the groundwork for him becoming the Green FDR:
Of course, it's entirely possible that this history-making first 100 days won't remake history. It's more than possible that we won't stop catastrophic warming. But if we don't stop the 100s of years of misery, of Hell and High Water," that will almost certainly be because the conservative movement threw their entire weight behind humanity's self-destruction (see "Anti-science conservatives must be stopped") -- because conservative in both chambers refuse to conserve anything, including a livable climate, and willingly sacrificed the health and well-being of the next 50 generations of Americans for their ideology.
But even if we fail to stop the catastrophe, there is no escape from Americans, indeed, all humans, ultimately having a low-carbon, low-oil, low-water low-natural-capital lifestyle. And thus the vast majority of Obama's initiatives will be recognized by future generations and future historians as the point at which the U.S. government embraced the inevitable and started down the sustainable path that presidents either chose to embrace voluntarily in time to avoid the worst impacts or were forced to embraced by the collapse of the global Ponzi scheme.
Obama is the first president in history to articulate both the why and how of the sustainable vision -- and to actively, indeed aggressively, pursue its enactment. And that is why he is likely to be remembered as the green FDR.