Nixon, Obama, and Earth Day Offer a Study on Challenges of Being Green

But Nixon was terrific on the environment, for his own reasons, and Obama is trying to be.


Does Earth Day mark the dawn of a new environmental era in the United States? The answer is yes if President Obama and Carol Browner, his environmental and energy czar have anything to say about it.

Despite public indifference and worry about the threat that new environmental regulations pose to a struggling economy, Democrats in D.C. are charging ahead. President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has already announced that it will limit carbon dioxide emissions. The Democratic chairmen of the two key House committees that have jurisdiction over the environment, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California, have already said they will get their legislation to the floor by Memorial Day.

It hasn't been easy being green in Washington, D.C., since the golden age of environmental protection in the early 1970s while Richard Nixon was president. Yes, that Richard Nixon. There is an entire room in Ripley's Believe or Not Museum devoted to Nixon's environmental presidency.

Before his presidency was so rudely interrupted by Watergate, Democratic Congresses passed several environmental initiatives that Nixon signed into law. These laws included the National Environmental Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and last but certainly not least, the Safe Drinking Act of 1974. It wouldn't surprise me if Al Gore had a portrait of former president Nixon hanging in his office next to Jacques Cousteau's.

Not only did Richard Nixon sign all this legislation but he took a big step on his own when he signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

The big question is why a conservative like Nixon created EPA and why did he sign the green legislation passed by Congress. There are any number of explanations.

To begin with, Nixon was much more interested in foreign policy than he was in domestic policy. And Nixon wasn't the first president to allow Congress to take domestic policy initiatives as long as it left him alone to act as commander in chief. And the president was busy fighting the war in Vietnam at the time and making overtures to the communist governments of the Soviet Union and China.

And there was a tradition of progressive GOP environmentalism in the form of Teddy Roosevelt. It's hard to believe but, in the 1970s, there were moderate Republicans. Of course, they should have been put on the Endangered Species list before they died off, became Democrats, or were herded into re-education camps during the Ronald Reagan's presidency. These upscale and suburban Republicans were swing voters who were green, wealthy, and influential. So Nixon catered to them on environmental policy.

Finally, most presidents want to expand the scope of the federal government and their own power even if they campaigned as small government conservatives. Federal power just goes to their heads. Just look at the administration of the most recent former President Bush. George W. Bush took control of education policy from the states and school districts with the standardized test system in his No Child Left Behind law. The 43rd president expanded the federal Medicare program to include prescription drugs and he gave the federal government the power to listen in on the conversations of Americans with the Patriot Act. Conservative Republican presidents just can't help themselves after they move into the White House. It must be something in the water cooler in the Oval Office.

Which brings us back to the Obama administration. When the economy is so bad and there is so little concern about the environment, why is the Obama administration planning to take such bold action to clean the environment up and fight global warming?

The reason is that solving environment problems like global warming will help the new administration solve pressing diplomatic, health, and economic problems. If we burned less oil, we would have to depend less on unstable Middle Eastern countries for fuel. Some health experts believe that the increasing number of children with autism is a function of environmental impurities. And most importantly, we could follow New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's advice and create a new environmental technology industry that would be a source of new jobs, more exports, and higher incomes for America.

Corrected on : Brad Bannon is president of Bannon Communications Research, a political consulting firm that works for Democrats, unions, and progressive issue groups.