If you recall, Republicans inserted a rider into the payroll tax cut bill (the one that they bizarrely opposed despite being the self-proclaimed party of tax cuts) that forces Obama to decide whether to approve or deny the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline by the beginning of March. The clock is now ticking.
When the GOP first proposed the rider, the administration said it would then be forced to deny the pipeline, since it wouldn't have time to carry out the environmental review it had promised. But administrations say a lot of things, and then do a lot of different things, especially in election years (pretty trenchant political analysis, I know!). Especially after moneyed interests like the oil industry start making public threats to besiege the president if he doesn't play ball.
So, everybody in the environmental community is now abuzz about whether or not Obama will follow through on his word, or cave in to those moneyed interests has he has done sometimes before. Dave Roberts has a good piece breaking down the political minutia surrounding the decision, and it really boils down to this:
There will be a flurry of attack ads and Fox News denunciations if Obama rejects the pipeline, of course. But November is a looong way away. There will be dozens of similar five-minute hates from the right before its all over. By the time the election rolls around, the only ones who remember Keystone (or Solyndra) will be committed partisans on both sides, and we already know how they're going to vote.Indeed. The oil industry claims it can turn Keystone XL, as well as oil and gas drilling, into a wedge issue, ostensibly with some terrible, quite phony ads. But its Vote 4 Energy campaign is silly, inauthentic, and almost certain to be ineffective. The construct of the so-called 'Energy Voter' is a myth concocted by the oil industry and little else.
The fact is, Keystone just isn't that big of an issue, at least in terms of its proximate impacts on average Americans ... Politically speaking, Keystone is a relatively faint signal amidst a cacophony of noise. The only ones who will hear it will be partisans paying close attention. If Obama approves it, the signal will be to the dirty-energy caucus that it can successfully bully him. (Think they'll stop with Keystone?) If he rejects it, the signal will be to his progressive base that he is worthy of their enthusiasm.
Roberts is right – nobody really cares that much about the Keystone XL, other than the oil industry, its immediate benefactors, and the hardline partisans who buy, hook, line, and sinker, the message that the oil-sponsored GOP feeds them about it. And, of course, the thousands of proactive environmentalists, farmers, students, activists, and concerned citizens who spent a good chunk of last year vehemently protesting the tar sands pipeline. They're the ones Obama need be factoring into his decision-making.
The choice for Obama seems easy. Deny the pipeline, and enthuse those thousands and thousands of progressives, who will then be that much more inclined to campaign for him come Fall. Or approve it, piss off his base, and yield absolutely no discernible political benefit in the process. If he's going to play a populist in his reelection campaign, just about the worst thing Obama could do is cut a deal with Big Oil from the get-go.