The State Department's review of the Keystone XL pipeline got a lot of attention when it was released on Friday. As the New York Times put it (2/1/14), the report found the pipeline project "would not substantially worsen carbon pollution, leaving an opening for President Obama to approve the politically divisive project."
That framing carried over to Meet the Press (2/2/14), where NBC news personalities Chuck Todd and David Gregory wondered if Obama would seize this as an important historical moment. No, not to take a stand against climate change and the burning of untapped fossil fuels. The moment they meant was Obama's opportunity to do something Republicans might like:
DAVID GREGORY: I mean, I know the left can be upset with the president. But there's a real opening to say to Republicans: "Hey, you say this is a priority? Well, I studied it, and I think it's a priority, too. We'll go ahead and do it."
CHUCK TODD: Well, I–you know–
DAVID GREGORY: It could be a big moment for him.
CHUCK TODD: It could be. I was surprised. You do get a sense that the president doesn't want…did not like the statement that he got out of State. Because now they're emphasizing, the White House is emphasizing, "Well, other agencies have to weigh in." So it feels as if a little bit of–
RICH LOWRY (National Review): Well, for a month, they've been saying it's all about the State Department.
CHUCK TODD: It's all about the State Department thing. So it does feel like as if, politically, they're in a vise. Look, the politics of this, with Arkansas, let's not forget this, where the pipeline might be going through–
CHUCK TODD: Mark Pryor, Democratic senator. So, you know, at some point you do figure the politics is going to sort of impact where the president comes down here. But on the big picture legacy thing, you know, the other part that the president was elected on was changing politics as we know it in this town.
And that's what sort of has stunned, from the David Remnick interview to the State of the Union itself, which all paints a picture of, you know what? He's resigned to the constraints of the office and the constraints of the politics of this town. He's given up on trying to break the polarization addiction that this town has. And some will say he added to it. But he's given that up. And to me, that's going to be something that I think historians are going to be writing about as the great disappointment of the Obama era.
So the "political" issue here might be how a pipeline could impact the electoral fortunes of a senator from Arkansas. But bigger than that, we've got the matter of Obama's historical legacy, and for people like Todd and Gregory, this is mostly a question of whether he did enough to make Republican politicians happy.
It's doubtful that historians living in an era when sea level is 40-70 feet higher than it is today, and many coastal cities are entirely underwater, will be looking at Obama's failure to make common cause with Republicans to accelerate the burning of fossil fuels as "the great disappointment of the Obama era."