Reporting from Washington — President Obama has failed to answer Republican attacks on environmental safeguards "forcefully and persuasively" and to articulate his own vision for conserving American wilderness and water, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt charged Tuesday.
Babbitt, who served under President Clinton, said in an interview that he would lay out his concerns about the Republican environmental agenda and the Obama administration's response in a speech in Washington on Wednesday.
It's rare for a political figure of Babbitt's stature to reproach publicly a sitting president of his own party. But Obama has faced blunt criticism from old allies on a range of issues after compromising with Republicans who control the House.
Babbitt is giving voice to disappointment among many environmental advocates. Since the midterm elections, the administration has delayed or weakened several regulations bitterly opposed by congressional Republicans and business lobbyists, and given credence to the GOP contention that regulations — especially environmental ones — stifle growth.
More recently, Babbitt said, the administration has acquiesced to riders that conservatives placed on the interim budget, including one that took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in several states and another that gutted a program meant to reduce overfishing.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, warned that Obama's inaction could cost him in 2012. "Unless there's a change in his policies, he will likely face very damp enthusiasm from young voters and a significant portion of the base that wants him to stand up to polluters," Brune said. "I definitely think there are many progressive donors in general and environmental donors in particular whose enthusiasm won't be what it was in 2008."
The Interior Department responded that Obama had embarked on a conservation plan more ambitious than those of his recent predecessors.
"The Obama administration is already building a strong conservation legacy, founded on sensible protections for wilderness lands, wildlife habitat and farms and ranches that are under threat," said Kendra Barkoff, spokeswoman for the Interior Department.
Barkoff said Obama had protected more than 2 million acres of wilderness, designated more than 1,100 miles of wild and scenic rivers, expanded the national park system and established several new national conservation areas.
Environmentalists credit Obama with doing more than his predecessor, George W. Bush — including tougher rules on clean drinking water and emissions from vehicles and new power plants.
Babbitt said that although he still supported the president, he had to urge Obama to do more after watching Republicans repeatedly introduce legislation to dismantle environmental protections.
"It is imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation — something that he has not yet done in a significant way," Babbitt will say Wednesday, according to an advance copy of his speech. "President Obama and the executive branch are the best, and likely only, hope for meaningful progress on this critical issue. So I am here today to call on the president to lead us in standing up to the radical agenda of the House of Representatives, and to replace their draconian agenda with a bold conservation vision."
During the 2008 campaign, Obama said climate change was among his top priorities. But after failing to push through a cap-and-trade bill and a humiliating rebuke in the midterm elections, Obama has said little recently about the environment or climate change. Instead, he is trying to shed an image Republicans and corporate lobbyists have pinned on him as pro-regulation and anti-business and, by extension, indifferent to jobs, said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"He's on a high wire here," Sabato said. In trying to answer environmentalists in the Democratic base and corporate interests that could finance his campaign, Obama is "trying to balance two constituencies, both of which are unhappy with him."
Babbitt and other environmentalists assert that the Republican narrative of "job-killing regulations" is sticking because Obama has remained silent. He urged the president to reject all future environmental riders, in part because Clinton — under similar pressure from a Republican House and industry — signed one in 1995 that damaged American forests. Babbitt also urged Obama to restore land and waterways by using executive authority to create more parks and wilderness areas.