One of the most striking things about President Barack Obama's speech on climate change, delivered in the sweltering heat at Georgetown University, was how long it took him to get to the point.
For all its lyrical evocation of the photograph that Apollo 8 astronauts snapped of their first Earthrise (and ours) -- "beautiful; breathtaking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon"; for all its deft jabs at an intractable GOP-controlled House of Representatives -- "I don't have much patience for anyone who denies this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society" -- the speech does not get down to policy brass tacks until about a third of the way through the text.
This slow build up is a sign of how tentative the president's proposals are, how carefully couched his prescriptions.
Start with what is surely the president's headline-making assertion: "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest," he asserted about the controversial project that would allow Canadian tar-sands derived oil to flow to Gulf Coast refineries before being exported. "And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."
This is his toughest statement to date, and one reason why Al Gore enthused that it was the single most important presidential address on climate change (query: what's the competition?).
Still, it is the State Department, and not the White House, that has the final say over whether the pipeline can be constructed. The president's concession -- the "State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That's how it's always been done" -- is as legally accurate and provides the president with cover. If State says yes, the Chief Executive cannot say no.
What the president promised to do is to use provisions of the Clean Air Act to incentivize and stimulate local, state, and federal action; he charged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants."
That's a good first step, even though current EPA regulations call for plant-by-plant retrofitting, a go-slow process that will consume decades, have a too-small impact on our collective greenhouse emissions, and do little to enhance the public health of those whose neighborhoods abut these utilities' belching smokestacks.
You do what you can, of course, and that goes too for the the president's promise "to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate." Using existing federal law where possible, and the bully pulpit as available, Obama hopes to encourage federal agencies, embolden states and communities, and reengage with global partners to make the nation and the planet more resilient.
Note, however, which powerbrokers are not included in this outreach: The legislature. Specifically, the body within Congress that controls the purse strings. Well aware that the GOP House majority has repeatedly spurned his bipartisan gestures and has rigidly aligned itself with a clutch of climate-change deniers, the president's action plan does not call on Congress to act. Smart thinking, since it has proved incapable of accepting the need to act.
Yet this example of Realpolitik reflects the serious checks on and the important limitations of the president's approach to combatting climate change. It offers no direct challenge to the House, no throwing down of the gauntlet. Rather it admits that the Executive Branch, with some exceptions, will take a back seat to state, county, and local governments, that will be effectively relegated to cheerleading status.
As if to acknowledge the White House's diminished role, the president closed his speech with a rousing chorus designed to elevate our sights above the petty, if crushing, realities of Inside-the-Beltway politics.
Recall the 1968 Earthrise photograph, he concluded, "that bright blue ball rising over the moon's surface, containing everything we hold dear -- the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity -- that's what's at stake. That's what we're fighting for. And if we remember that, I'm absolutely sure we'll succeed."
Surely our success would be more assured if it came with the full backing -- political and fiscal -- of the entire federal government. Surely we can and must do better.