01/10/2012 05:11 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

Obama Delivers Pep Talk To Beleaguered EPA Employees

Seeking to draw clear lines between himself and a field of Republican presidential hopefuls who have been openly hostile to environmental regulations -- and to shore up his own image among his environmental base -- President Barack Obama told a vocally appreciative gathering of Environmental Protection Agency employees Tuesday that they have his thanks and support.

"The EPA touches on the lives of every single American every single day," Obama said. "You help make sure that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the foods we eat are safe. You protect the environment not just for our children, but for their children."

The agency has unveiled a number of aggressive and in many cases expensive measures -- including tough new efficiency standards for vehicles, new limits on emissions of mercury and other air toxics from power plants, and vigorous rules aimed at curbing air pollution that crosses state lines -- often in the face of furious opposition from affected industries and their supporters on Capitol Hill.

Critics of the agency have argued that such aggressive measures act as a drag on the economy, killing jobs and otherwise holding the nation back as it struggles to rise out of a lingering recession.

EPA overreach has become a familiar refrain among GOP candidates in the run-up to the primary season, and a record number of bills aimed at reversing established environmental regulations or hobbling the agency's ability to introduce new ones were introduced in Congress in 2011.

"The EPA's unprecedented rash of regulations will cost our economy tens of billions of dollars and put at risk tens of thousands of jobs," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said recently.

But Obama told the gathering of EPA staff that the agency's critics were often guilty of creating a spurious choice between environmental and economic health. "I don't buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way," Obama said. "I think that is a false debate."

Obama appeared alongside EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was reportedly blindsided by the president in September when he pulled the plug on tough new smog regulations that Jackson, whose own son suffers from asthma, had considered a cornerstone of her tenure at the agency. Questions about Jackson's willingness to remain at the agency quickly followed, but on Tuesday the EPA administrator declared herself and the agency lucky to have "the leadership of a president who supports our mission."

Despite EPA's raft of new regulations, the Obama administration has at times had a tenuous relationship with the environmental constituency that helped sweep him into office in 2008. Many were angered in 2010 when the administration announced plans to expand offshore drilling to new parts of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts -- plans that were bollixed just a few weeks later when BP's Deepwater Horizon set off an unprecedented environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Others were dismayed by the shelving of EPA's smog rule last fall -- a move that prompted lawsuits.

More recently, environmental advocates have criticized the administration's opposition to new European rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the airline industry.

But speaking Tuesday, Obama told EPA employees that he remains committed to sensible environmental regulation. And he praised the agency's accomplishments over the last 40 years, noting that those who would do away with the EPA forget what life was like before it. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the president noted, was so polluted with industrial toxins, that it literally -- and famously -- caught fire in the year before the establishment of the EPA.

On the Chicago River in his own hometown: "You probably could not find anything alive in there, four decades ago," Obama said. "Now, it's thriving."