03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Successful Year For Our First Sustainability President

The Environmental Protection Agency recently decided to issue the most stringent air pollution regulations in American history. This step, along with increased enforcement of the nation's rules on water cleanliness and the move to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, demonstrates that this administration takes environmental protection very seriously and will use their authority to act now to improve environmental quality. This example of tough, aggressive executive leadership needs to be understood in context if we are to truly assess what the Obama Administration is actually accomplishing in the real world, as opposed to the one that exists in the electronic imagination of the 24/7 media.

The right wing attacks on President Obama are intensifying, now echoed by attacks from the left. While we may be discovering that the president is a mere mortal, I must confess that my admiration for him continues to grow. As we approach the end of his first year in office we should all prepare for the onslaught of media retrospectives to come. I know that President Obama has not ended climate change, war, hunger, or drought, but his first year in office has demonstrated the brainpower, judgment and awesome communication skills we first saw during the Presidential campaign. The accomplishments of his first year in office can be compared favorably to any new president since FDR.

I suspect that many people will disagree with that assessment, but let me start by asking, who could have done a better job? How about the cast of characters that ran the last time out? How would Mitt, Rudy, McCain, Hillary, Huckabee or Edwards be doing? While Secretary Clinton might be holding her own, I guarantee you the rest of that crowd wouldn't know what hit them.

The year that just ended was no picnic. The new Administration faced the impact of an economy battered by a generation of financial deregulation, mindless consumption and a free market devoid of common sense rules. The president's new team is dealing with a set of crises caused by decades of disinvestment in infrastructure, science and education and a foreign policy devoid of logic and strategy.

Obama and his colleagues have restored confidence in the economy and, despite the toxic and negative politics in Washington, managed to remain cool and calm in the face of unprecedented provocation. More importantly, he is beginning to demonstrate the persistence and determination required of successful American presidents. He is also starting to show signs that he understands how to use the power of his office to set the national and even global agenda.

In case you don't see the part of the glass that's half full, let me remind you that:

  • An $800 billion stimulus package was enacted, averting massive cutbacks in state and local government, providing resources to help build a green economy, and helping restore a sense of momentum to an economy on its heels. While too many people are still hurting, try to remember how scary the economy felt a year ago.
  • Health care bills were passed in both houses of Congress.
  • A climate bill was enacted in the House, and even without legislation EPA is moving to aggressively to regulate large polluters through the use of existing statutes.
  • Due to Obama's active diplomacy, a modest climate agreement managed to emerge from the ashes of the Copenhagen conference.
  • The President has begun to restore America's image in the world, while developing a quieter but still serious strategy to combat terrorism.

I could go on, but the bottom line is that the idea that Barack Obama is a failed president is absurd. He is criticized by the right, who insist that he is some kind of radical socialist/pacifist, then by the left because he accommodates too quickly to political realities. But the real picture of Obama that is emerging is far more complex than the caricature that ideological politicos are trying to draw.

Obama is a consensus builder and a pragmatic problem solver, well within the mainstream of American politics. He sees the challenges that the nation faces and is working effectively to move our political agenda in a direction that will allow us to realistically confront those challenges. He is a politician. He makes deals to achieve progress on his agenda and is willing to settle for half a loaf when that is all he can get.

The fast-moving global economy, the access of terrorists to the technology of destruction and the role of electronic media have all combined to make the President's job more difficult than ever. These problems require leaders who are brilliant, patient, humble, tolerant and tough. Our president is all of that. We saw his humility, brainpower and determination when he accepted the Nobel Prize, and we've seen it all year.

It's worth remembering that President Obama has held national office for only five years - he joined the U.S. Senate in January of 2005. He's still new to the job of national leadership. Think of the two different JFK's we saw during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is no preparation for the American Presidency. All Presidents must go through on-the-job training. I think that when Barack Obama reaches the peak of his learning curve he will be well worth watching. Still, when Obama's first year report cards start appearing in about ten days, let's try to temper our judgment with some fairness and perspective. Perhaps we should remember these important words from JFK's inaugural address:

"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

It's fair to say that Obama is off to a promising start. He understands the central issues of global sustainability and he has taken the first steps to implement a green agenda. He is the first sustainability president in American history, and he is just getting started.